By Amy Baskin
At age three, Savannah (now five) adored dogs so much that she created an imaginary one for herself. A real one was out, since her parents have allergies. But when a friend’s loving yet large pup jumped on her, that infatuation morphed to fear. “If we saw a dog, she’d start to whimper and ask to be picked up,” says her mom, Alison Palkhivala of Beaconsfield, Que. And Palkhivala’s three-year-old son Calvin also panicked around pooches. “I could literally feel him shaking.” Since many of their friends had dogs, socializing became challenging. To make visits possible, Palkhivala would often phone ahead and ask if the pet could be put away.
If your preschooler has a similar dread of dogs, there’s no need for you to become unleashed. At this age, it’s normal and a common fear, says Dr. Katharina Manassis, a child psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and author of Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child (Barron). “It’s only a problem if it’s a safety concern or really affecting their life.”
So, if your child darts across the street when he sees a dog or you can’t see your friends and family, it’s time to tame the terror. Dr. Manassis explains how.
Never force your preschooler to pat a dog. “It’s insensitive to your child and you can also undermine his trust in you,” says Dr. Manassis.
Start with exposure your child can handle and slowly increase the time spent near the dog. Explain that you’re helping her feel less scared of dogs, says Dr. Manassis. With a truly terrified tot, just look at pictures of dogs together or talk about them. Practice this step once a day for about 15 minutes — long enough for your child’s anxiety to diminish. Be calm and confident and offer a reward, like a favourite snack or activity. After your child masters this step, slowly increase the challenge, such as watching a dog from a distance. Eventually, try regular visits together with a friend’s calm pet.
When practicing, always use the same dog or same breed and size of dog. Palkhivala successfully tried this technique with her daughter by regularly visiting a friend with an old golden retriever. The first few times, the dog stayed in another room. They progressed to watching the pooch behind a gate and then to being close as the dog strolled by. “It’s making a difference,” she says. “Savannah’s still scared, but now the dog doesn’t have to be put away, and at the end of the visit she wants to play with him.”
After a few weeks or months of de-sensitization, most kids overcome their fear. But if your child seems stuck or it’s become a safety issue, contact a psychologist or psychiatrist. Sometimes you need help to help your child, explains Dr. Manassis.
While some preschoolers dislike dogs, others have a lack of fear that can also be a problem, says Diane Purser, humane education coordinator at the Ontario (York) SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Many young children run up to dogs to hug and kiss them. But kids’ high-pitched voices and quick, jerky movements could unintentionally cause a problem with a dog, which is why you should never leave a preschooler alone with one (even a gentle family pet). “It’s like you’re putting two toddlers together and expecting them to make smart decisions.”
For safe canine encounters, Purser suggests the following.
• Always ask permission from the owner to pet their dog.
• After getting the go-ahead, approach the pet correctly: Put your hand out slowly towards the dog’s nose so he can smell it. With the same hand, slowly pat him under the chin or on the side of the face.
• Ask your local SPCA or Humane Society about animal education and bite prevention programs for children.
• See dogsandkids.ca for more ideas.
Freelance writer Amy Baskin wrote this story with her 13-year-old hound/shepherd dog Jemma under her desk.