Whether you own a dog or not, it is really important to supervise your children’s interactions with any dogs that they might come into contact with, in order to keep both dog and child safe. Having a bad experience with a dog at a young age can be very formative for children, and can grow over time into a genuine fear or phobia of dogs, something that can go on to affect the child throughout the whole duration of their lives.
If your child has been unlucky enough to be bitten by a dog, or frightened but not physically harmed by a dog, wariness of contact with canines in the future is understandable. However, it is important to do what you can to deal with fear of dogs in your child at an early age, and try to help them overcome their fear for the long term.
In order to try to prevent your child from becoming scared of dogs in the first place, it is important to teach your child from an early age about correct behaviour around dogs. You should never leave your child unsupervised with any dog until they are old enough to understand the basics of canine communication and good behaviour, and even then, never to leave your child with a dog that you do not know very well. Teach your child never to approach a strange dog without permission from the owner, never to creep up on a dog, how to read their body language, and how to tell when a dog has had enough or does not wish to be approached.
If you can pinpoint an exact incident that has triggered fear of dogs in your child, you are off to a head start. If your child was bitten, knocked over or otherwise scared, it can be important to explain to your child at a level that they understand and without allocating blame, anything that they might have done to cause or exacerbate the problem, and anything they could have done to prevent it. In some cases, there will be nothing that could have been done to prevent the problem, such as if a dog ran up to your child without reason and jumped up at them or hurt them. Regardless of the exact circumstances, it is important that the child understands what, if anything, they did or could have done to have caused an incident to happen, without making them feel as if this meant that the dog’s reactions were ok. While your aim is of course to help your child to overcome the after effects of a scare involving a dog and enable them to be comfortable and confident with dogs in the future, you should never attempt to make your child totally fearless to the point of overconfidence with dogs. You should ensure that your child understands that dogs are animals, and may behave unpredictably, despite their best intentions.
The best way to build up confidence and help your child to overcome fear of dogs is by gradual exposure to amenable dogs, with positive consequences. In order to do this, you will need to find a dog (or ultimately, several different dogs) that are extremely well mannered, tolerant and quiet, which can help you to demonstrate to your child that dogs are good and friendly.
Try to pick a dog that is not overly vocal, is not prone to jumping up, and that will obey commands reliably. The dog should be friendly but not over excitable, and while a dog that is good with children is of course a must, ensure that the dog is not so delighted to see a little person that they go bouncing straight up to them wanting to play.
Never push your child out of their comfort zone or try to force them into contact with a dog; reassure them and stay with them at all times, and let them work at their own pace.
The process should always be undertaken with the child approaching the dog and making advances towards the dog, rather than the other way around. Start off with your child being in the same room as a dog, while the dog sits quietly. Show the child that the dog is friendly by talking to it and touching it yourself, and demonstrating to the child by pointing out the dog’s posture and body language how you can tell that the dog is friendly, and how you would know if it was not.
Over several sessions, encourage your child to get closer to the dog, eventually touching it and petting it. A child that has been bitten by a dog previously may well be very wary of the muzzle end, and you can reassure the child by muzzling the dog (even if you are as sure as you possibly can be that the dog will never snap) in order to remove that part of their concern from the equation.
Ultimately, your child should learn to feel safe and comfortable in the presence of a calm, quiet dog that is not muzzled, and be happy to have the dog approach them and offer it a treat.
Hopefully, your child will ultimately overcome their fear, and gain a healthy regard for dogs, possibly even going on to become an avid canine enthusiast. It is of course important to ensure that your child is shielded from any future negative experiences with dogs, both to prevent injury and to avoid reinforcing their prior fear.
However, not every child will become hugely enthusiastic about dogs, and there is not a lot you can do about it if your child decides that dogs are simply not for them! But your child should still be able to spend supervised time around dogs when necessary without feeling scared or uncomfortable, even if they never fully develop your own love of dogs.