What to Do When Your Child is Afraid of Dogs
As many of you who read this blog regularly know, my child was afraid of dogs before we adopted Maverick, our now 8-month-old puppy. We taught my daughter some simple lessons to help her get over her fear.
Keep in mind that aggression doesn’t seem to be in Maverick’s behavioral repertoire, so I didn’t have any qualms about letting him interact with my child. If your dog has shown aggression in any form, including biting, snapping, lunging, growling, or barking aggressively, you should seek professional help from a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist or an Applied Animal Behaviorist before you let your dog interact with a child.
- Control the dog by controlling yourself.
If you’ve ever been anxious you know that you feel better when you feel in control. That is why my husband likes to drive and I like to drive. Regardless of who is the better driver, we both feel more in control when we are individually behind the wheel.
I didn’t have any intentions of making my child the "alpha dog." Anyone who is up to date on their scientific research knows that dominance theory in dogs is buried six feet under. However, she did need to feel like she could control this puppy so that she could feel safe. Her first lesson was the "Be a Tree" game. This game teaches your child to stand still with her hands at her side. Start by getting her riled up. She can run around, dance, whatever. Then, say loudly "BE A TREE!" Your child should stop instantly and stand still.
When we first went to meet Maverick he was 6 months old, so he weighed about the same as my daughter. He barreled toward her and she ran with her arms flailing until she could hide behind me. In dog language that means, "I want to play. I feel crazy. Chase me!!" So, he chased her. I reminded her of the "Be a Tree" game. The next time he came running to us, she stopped immediately and stood still. Maverick got fairly close to her, but lost interest because she wasn’t moving. Now, she could control how wild he was by controlling her own movements.
- Interact in a structured way.
Structured interactions calm the puppy down. When the puppy came home, my husband and I started working with him on basic behaviors such as sit and leave it. Then we gave my daughter the treat bag and asked her to do as we had done. We stood nearby at first so that we could reinforce what she told the puppy. This way, he would hear the cues paired with my daughter’s softer voice as well as our deeper and louder voices and learn to respond to her. We let her toss the treats to him to reward him so that she didn’t have to get too close.
As we progressed through doggy training class and Maverick learned more behaviors, we integrated those into his training sessions with our daughter. Maverick learned very quickly that the shortest person in the house always had treats and began to associate himself with her on a regular basis.
- Give them responsibility.
We gave our daughter part of the responsibility for caring for the puppy, including feeding, holding the leash (while we were holding it) and taking him outside. This allowed her to take ownership for the care of this new family member.
- Chase me!
In this game, we encouraged Maverick to chase my daughter and then rewarded him when he got to her. We eventually added a sit or a down at the end of the game so that he wouldn’t jump on her. Maverick does not have a strong chase instinct, so I wasn’t at worried that the chase game would jeopardize my daughter’s safety. I often use this game myself when I am teaching a puppy to come to me. If, however, I had a Border Collie, an Australian Shepherd, or another herding breed, I would play this game with caution because the puppy may learn to use his mouth when he chases.
In the "Chase Me" game, my daughter calls Maverick’s name, shakes a bag of treats, and takes off running. At first, we had to remind her to "Be a Tree" so that she would stop. When she did, she tossed the puppy a treat. We let her do this as many times a day as she wanted to. Soon, she understood the game and we didn’t have to remind her to "Be a Tree" anymore. It took very little time for my daughter and my puppy to love this game.
Now when she calls him from just about anywhere he comes running. This makes her feel like Maverick really loves her and conditions Maverick to believe that being around her is very rewarding.
And now my child is not afraid of dogs at all. But I have a new problem: She is a dog pest. More on how to deal with that next week.
Dr. Lisa Radosta