Fear of Children in Dogs
Usually one might think that it’s the other way around: Kids, who are scared of dogs, but you will be surprised how many dogs I have encountered, who are not only scared but terrified of children!
Dogs and kids growing up together are a great combination, teaching each other invaluable lessons while evolving side by side and often form lifelong bonds. But if you have a dog which is scared of kids, you not only have to take extra precaution to keep the children safe and never leave your dog unattended near kids, but it is also important to help your dog to loose its fear. Fear can quickly turn into aggression and this is the last thing you want your dog to express when it is surrounded by the junior crew.
Why would a dog would fear children?
We adults know that children are harmless, but your dog may not be so sure about it. Try to see children through your dog’s eyes.
Dogs don’t automatically understand that children are in small sized humans and some dogs are not even sure if they are humans at all or something completely alien, which could cause death and destruction. Children not only smell differently than adults with whom your dog usually comes in contact with, kids also have an entirely different body language.
Children yell, scream, jostle, run, tug, jump, tease… you name it. Their movements are often random and jerky, they walk in unpredictable ways, waving their arms in the air, or suddenly start running directly towards a dog in order to touch or hug it. Some might even hurt pets, as they are too young or have not been taught yet, how to approach a dog in a correct and safe way. Others might trip and fall on your sleeping dog. All recipes for disaster!
For a fearsome dog, children’s voices, their high pitched screaming and uncontrolled movements are enough to send them into alert mode. Dogs depend on their senses and on their ability to understand body language to assess their environment and other beings they come across.
A dog, who hasn’t been socialised with kids while growing up, will have problems to understand what a child actually is, as it sends out mixed signals, which trigger fear in some dogs. Especially during puppy training, which focusses to expose pups to new sights, sounds and experiences in a gentle pace, it is important to introduce them in a supervised way to kids in all kind of situations to help them to gain confidence and reduce their fear.
Another reason why dogs sometimes become terrified of kids might be due to traumatic incidents connected with children in the past. The calmest dog when having to endure an hour long unpleasant dress or make-up session with a young visitor, will probably freak out for the rest of its life, whenever it sees people under 3 feet tall.
Irresponsible parents sometimes allow their child to climb on a dog and ride it like a pony, some kids have the tendency to pull tails, grab handfuls of fur or even poke eyes, which can not only cause psychological damage to dogs but also hurt them physically.
Children who repeatedly take your dog’s favourite chew bone away, involuntarily train your dog to develop negative associations with children. Even just one bad experience can create an aversion or fear in your dog that is hard to erase and can lead to all kinds of issues.
A dog, which is scared of children will usually choose one of the two most common fear responses in dogs: Flight or Fight.
Some dogs, who are uncomfortable or scared with children, try to walk away from them or attempt to hide when kids get too close for comfort.
Dogs always usually send out warning signals to show the other person or animal, that they doesn’t want to have a closer contact and the other one should better stay away from them.
A fearsome dog might keep its tail tucked in between the legs, ears close to its head, licks its lips or mouth repeatedly or shakes its whole body like it would be wet. Some yawn even, others growl quietly. All those behaviours are calming and warning signals to make sure the approaching human or animal stays out of harms reach.
Unfortunately in most cases children usually don’t recognise the warning signals of a dog who does not want to meet them and is ready to attack out of fear. This is the reason why it’s mostly children who get bitten by dogs.
What to do and not to do if my dog is scared of children?
The most important and crucial thing to do is to take precautions. Never leave your dog unsupervised with children. Fear might quickly turn into aggression, if the dog has no option to run away.
When your fearful dog, or a dog of whom you don’t know if it has been socialised with children, is around kids, don’t take your eyes off them, not even for a second and be ready to jump in between at the first sign, that the dog is becoming anxious, angry or uncomfortable.
Some humans have the strange idea that ignoring your dog, which is experiencing discomfort and fear while around kids will make it all go away. Trust me, your dog won’t grow out of it and its discomfort and fear won’t get any better by not addressing the problem. You are taking a huge risk as you cannot predict, if or when your dog is no longer able control its fear any longer and attacks children.
Don’t force your dog to make friends with a child by „facing its fears,“ by holding your dog still, while a child approaches or tries to pet it. This can backfire badly. If a fearful dog is pushed too far over the threshold, the point of no return, aggression will be the result, especially when it is prevented from fleeing the stressful situation.
If you force your dog to cope with children at close range, they will not enjoy it, but rather become more fearful and ready to attack without giving out warning signals, as they have learned that children are ignoring them completely.
Never punish your dog if it is scared of children and thus displays negative behaviour, rather find ways and methods to make it feel more confident when around children and help it to overcome its fears.
Train your kids!
This is one of the most important things to avoid problems and nasty incidents between children and dogs. Educate your children how to live with a dog under the same roof, teach them that there are rules to follow. They should never be allowed to interact with the dog unsupervised, and they should know to never to try to take the dog’s toys or approach the dog while it’s eating or sleeping.
On the other side, teach your children the right way to interact with dogs, how, where and when to touch your dog gently, how to play and that they always should ask permission of the dog owner, if they are allowed to pet a dog they spot walking in the street.
Train your dog
My Integral Dog Evolution Approach is built on two strong pillars when it comes to dog training. Building up a strong leadership based relationship between you and your dog and teach it new skills or behaviours through positive only association with lots of rewards.
Helping your dog to overcome its fear requires you to become a strong leader in the eyes of your dog, so that your dog can trust you and thus overcome its fears knowing that you as a calm leader are on its side.
I have written a few blog posts about leadership qualities which you can find here.
One of the methods to help your dog to overcome its fears, which you can find in detail here, is called desensitisation, a process of gradually increasing your dogs exposure and interaction with children to slowly eliminate the fear in your dog by making them understand the harmless nature of (most) children.
You can find a blog post about Desensitisation Training here.
Unless you are experienced in training fearful dogs, especially as you expose them to fear connected with children, please seek out the help of a professional dog trainer for the safety of your dog and the kids, as fear might turn quickly into aggression.
Desensitisation training can for example consist of you walking your leashed dog towards a kids playground and find out where your dog establishes the border between feeling safe and feeling fearful. This is the spot where you begin the conditioning part of the desensitisation program by, for example, tossing your dog its favourite treat a few inches in front towards the playing children in the distance.
Pro Tip: Sit down beside your dog, facing the playground and hold your dog on a loose but short leash.
– If your dog overcomes it’s fear, takes a few steps forward and calmly eats the treat on the ground, reward and praise it for a job well done!
– If your dog is too scared to walk the few inches towards the kiddy danger zone, simply take back the previously tossed treat, send out calming signals to your dog and when it relaxes again, reward and praise it for a job well done!
– Repeat this exercise for a few times and always reward your dog with the best treats you have available. Your dog is facing its fears and this bravery needs to be rewarded
– As this exercise is not a new skill to be learned, but an extensive behaviour modification and very stressful and demanding for your dog, always keep an eye on your dog. Don’t expose your dog longer than 15 minutes to its fears.
– At the first sign of your dog becoming restless and loosing its focus, stop the training for the day and give it a super mega reward experience for trying its best. With this you encourage your dog to come back the next day to the playground for another great session.
Pro Tip: During the whole exercise, unless you reward your dog, do not interact a lot with your dog. Don’t look at it, don’t talk and don’t touch it, just hold it on a short loose leash. This will help your dog to focus on the exercise it has to solve for itself.
– Gradually you and your dog will move closer and closer towards the playing children with your furry friend being confident and calm on your side. Please don’t hurry this process, it’s of utter importance that you progress literally a step forward per day, until your dog shows no negative reaction any longer when exposed to the kids trigger.
– Once you are just a few meters distance away from the children, ask some friendly parent, who understands very well that you are training your dog, which is leashed all the times and under your control, if their child would be allowed to help training your dog.
– If parents and child agrees, repeat the same exercise as before but with the difference that the child is tossing the treats from a safe distance towards your dog.
– As often the aim of the kid is not the best and the treat is too far away for your dog to go and get it, then either you take the treat and throw it back to the child, or ask the child’s parents or a helper to take the treat away, while you continue to keep your dog calm and safe. This helps to keep the child safe.
– Repeat this exercise until you are only a meter away from the child and your dog is completely at ease and relaxed.
– Overtime your dog will learn that being near children is not as scary as it thought it was, and you can start level 2 of the desensitisation program and walk with your leashed dog to different places where children are around, to expose it to all kind of different situations involving kids doing all the things children love to do.
– Only when your dog passes also this level, then you can start to have supervised and safe interactions between children and your dog.
Never forget: You are responsible for the behaviour of your dog, not only under the eyes of the law of many countries, but also for the safety of the children.
Children should learn from having a positive experience meeting you and your dog that other species are wonderful to co-exist with and learn how to approach a dog correctly and safely.
Give your dog and yourself the chance to help not only children, but also fellow adult humans to have a great experience when meeting you and your best furry friend.
Pro Tip: It is important keep your dog leashed during the whole training process. If your dog is scared and wants to run away, you simply keep on holding calmly the leash and calm it down using your energies as alpha leader. Through this your dog learns that it cannot flee this scary and stressful situation, but at the same time understands that there is nothing to fear, because you are its alpha and remain on its side, braving whatever is out there. Your dog is beginning to trust you.