We've all seen adorable pictures of a child with a dog. Television and movies are full of stories about children and their canine sidekicks. The truth is, however, that it's not uncommon for dogs to be afraid of children.
Causes of a Fear of Children in Dogs
There are two major reasons dogs may develop a fear of children. The first is a lack of early socialization . Dogs who aren't exposed to children as puppies, sometimes become fearful of children when they meet them later in life.
When they meet children for the first time as adult dogs, the unfamiliar size, smells, noises, and movements of children can be extremely frightening to a dog.
Dogs may also develop a fear of children after a negative experience. Young children have a tendency to pull tails, grab handfuls of fur, steal toys, and even poke eyes. Some dogs are tolerant of children's poking and prodding. Other dogs may develop a fear of children after only one bad experience. For others, it may take several negative experiences to instill a phobia.
How to Cope with a Dog's Fear of Children
Because it's unlikely that a dog will go through his entire life without ever meeting a child, it's important that you work on dealing with your dog's fear. There are several things you can do to minimize your dog's fear around children:
- An ounce of prevention. If you have just brought home a puppy, start socializing him with children now. All interactions should be supervised and kept positive and upbeat. Working on this now may save you lots of time and effort later on. Very often people get pets before they have children, and are surprised when their dogs growl or snap at a new infant or toddler. This can be a heartbreaking situation for the dog owner and the dog. Early socialization is the key to preventing this problem.
- Provide a quiet spot for your dog. If your dog is afraid of children, make sure he has a safe, quiet spot he can get to when children are visiting. If your dog is crate trained, a crate makes a perfect hiding spot. Don't allow children anywhere near your dog's safe area.
- Don't force your dog to make friends with a child. Making your dog stand still while a child approaches him or pets him is a recipe for disaster. If a fearful dog is pushed too far beyond his comfort zone, it can result in aggression. Don't put your dog in a position where he feels forced to defend himself.
- Discuss rules with your children. If you have a fearful dog and children living in the same household, it is important that your children have rules to follow. They should never be allowed to interact with the dog unsupervised. They should also not be permitted to approach the dog while he's eating or sleeping, or try to take the dog's toys. It's also important that you spend time teaching your children the right way to interact with dogs. This includes how to touch your dog with gentle petting rather than poking, prodding, and pulling.
- Desensitize your dog to children. Desensitization is the process which allows you to slowly introduce your dog to children in order to make him more comfortable with them. Because a fearful dog can become aggressive, it's very important to handle desensitization carefully. You can start by tossing your dog a few treats when he sees a child from a distance, and very slowly over the course of several days (or even weeks or months, depending on the severity of the fear) you can close the distance between your dog and children.
- Find a dog trainer or behaviorist with experience dealing with fearful dogs. Because dogs who are afraid of children run the risk of biting, it can be very beneficial to call in professional help. A dog trainer or animal behaviorist with experience handling fearful dogs can help you implement a desensitization program.
- Never leave your dog unsupervised with children. This should be the rule for all dogs, but especially for dogs who are afraid of children. It leaves both the dog and the children in a bad position that can result in an even greater fear in the dog or a bite for a child.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT