Q: My husband and I want to get our kids a puppy, but our 10-year-old daughter is terrified of dogs. Do you have any tips for how we can address her fear and anxiety, so we can bring a dog into our home?
A: This can happen for a variety of reasons, but I've most often seen kids develop a fear of dogs because they've either been overwhelmed by uncontrollable canines, bitten in the past, or their lack of experience leads to a fear of the unknown.
I work as a trainer for an organization called Pawsitive Works, which pairs children who are on probation with shelter dogs. The goal is to teach proper manners by using positive reinforcement. I often encounter kids in the program who are terrified of dogs. For example, one girl I met had been bitten three times by three different dogs, and she would shake just at the sight of a dog. So we taught her how to read canine body language and proper training techniques, in addition to also pairing her with a quiet and gentle dog. After a few weeks, she not only bonded with her shelter pup, but she declared that she wanted to become a dog trainer.
The ability to understand canine body language, by showing them the different ways that dogs can “speak” to them through body movements and mannerisms, is key to helping kids feel more in control. A good starting point is doggonesafe.com, which features pictures you can review with your children, so they can better grasp canine body language.
Before selecting a dog, you should also provide your daughter with various positive canine experiences. I suggest contacting a therapy dog organization, such as the Delta Society, which can locate a canine in your area who has undergone extensive training to be calm around visitors. My own Delta Society-certified pug has helped countless individuals overcome their hesitation around dogs! If your daughter has a deep-rooted fear, you may want to also consider working with a knowledgeable counselor or psychologist.
When it comes to picking out your own dog, you need the right type of canine. For example, your daughter will most likely feel less threatened around a small- or medium-sized dog. And although it may be tempting to pick out a puppy, they usually haven’t developed their full personalities yet, so it may be better to opt for an adult dog with a known history.
Be upfront with the adoption counselor about your daughter’s fear, so they can help select a calmer dog who's comfortable around children. At Pawsitive Works, I often pair older, easy-going dogs with intimidated youth. In addition, many shelters will allow you to visit with a potential pet multiple times, which can also build up your daughter’s confidence.
If you're set on getting a puppy, make it a point to meet the puppy’s parents, so you can observe their temperament — in some cases, the puppy may have a similar personality. You should also do a thorough breed screening to select a dog who's more likely to be child friendly and less territorial around strangers. To get you started, check our Dog Breed Guide.