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. Dogs and kids can make a great combination under the right circumstances, and often form lifelong bonds when they grow up together.
But when a dog is afraid of children, it's not always safe to bring them together. It's actually fairly common for dogs to be wary of kids (and vice versa), and there are ways you can address it to prevent confrontations.
Why Do Dogs Fear Children?
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 may 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 other dogs, it may take several negative experiences to instill a phobia.
How to Deal with a Dog's Fear of Children
Because it's unlikely that a dog will go through its entire life without ever meeting a child, it's important that you work on managing your dog's fear. This is not only for the sake of your dog; it is also important to prevent dog bites to children.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to minimize your dog's fear around children.
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. Many people get pets before they have children. Then, they 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.
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. When a fearful dog is around a child, do not take your eyes off them for a moment.
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 like asking for trouble. 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.
Provide a Safe Space
All dogs need a quiet, safe space where they can be left alone. If your dog is afraid of children, make sure he has a safe, quiet spot he can get to when children are visiting but that the children cannot access. If your dog is crate trained, a crate makes a perfect hiding spot. Don't allow children anywhere near your dog's safe area.
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.
Train Your Dog
Desensitization is the process of slowly introducing 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.
Very slowly over the course of several days, weeks or months (depending on the severity of the fear), you can decrease 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 trainer or behaviorist can help you implement a desensitization program.
Be sure you enlist an accredited veterinary behaviorist, preferably one who specializes in dogs afraid of kids.
These things can take a long time. Your dog may never fully accept children, but you can minimize the fear and lower the risk of dog bites.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT