It’s a far-too-common scenario for dog owners who have a pooch afraid of children: In the distance, you see a mother with a small child running down the street. As soon as you spot them, or sometimes even before if you’re attuned to your dog’s body language (which we all should be), you do your best to put your dog between the approaching child.
As the child get closer, you sense the urgency of the situation, telling the parent, “My dog is afraid of children.”
This falls on deaf ears. Instead, the situation escalates (and so does your frustration), as the child tries to pet the dog, with some parents even urging their kid to “go pet the doggy”
You may repeat that your dog is afraid. You may hold up your hand like a stop sign. But the parent ignores your warning and keeps approaching. “She’s just a kid! She loves animals. She’ll be gentle.”
You try to explain that your dog is frightened. You may even add that you want to ensure that the child is safe. But the parent isn’t hearing you.
When you have a dog who is fearful of children, navigating city streets can be a nightmare. The problem, however, is not your dog or the child; the issue is with some parents.
So many things could go wrong at this point. So, what can you do?
Protect Your Dog
It may be helpful to understand why some dogs are afraid of children. “Children move erratically and are unpredictable and they’re very loud,” says Lauren Novack, associate certified behavior consultant at Behavior Vets. “Their behavior is not under the control of societal norms and manners yet.”
Children often shout at dogs and approach them inappropriately, says Novack. When a child approaches a dog in an abrupt, excited manner, even if they’re trying to be friendly and they like dogs, it can present as threatening. “It’s up to us to help our dogs feel safe.”
When you go out in public, Novack says, you have to expect that people are not going to behave appropriately, and that your dog is going to be exposed to wide variety of circumstances. “As a dog owner, it’s our job to make sure that our dogs can either handle those circumstances appropriately, or we don’t put our dogs in that situation.”
The biggest fears when a dog is afraid of children is that he will bite the child or an adult will hurt your dog, thinking he is about to bite. Either scenario is a recipe for disaster. Obviously, if your dog is hurt by an adult, it could result in large veterinarian bills. But if your dog ends up biting a child, that could end up costing your dog his life.
“It’s really tough in our society because our society is incredibly litigious,” says Novack. She suggests that we either make sure that the dog isn’t going to be around kids, or that if we can’t avoid kids, we muzzle train our dogs — even if this seems disturbing.
The AKC lists the appropriate reasons to muzzle a dog, including when there is a risk of a dog biting in a threatening situation. When a person is treated for a dog bite, the medical care provider is required by law to report your dog, says Novack. If your dog is reported, he could be put on what’s known as a dangerous dog list, or worse. “If another bite happens again, that’s when action could be taken.” In other words, a court could order your dog to be euthanized.
A muzzle will protect your dog in the event that a parent isn’t watching their very young child, and that child runs up to your dog and grabs him. “If the dog is wearing a muzzle, nothing bad will happen,” Novack adds.
Deal with Persistent Parents
There are many stories posted online by dog owners about parents who don’t understand dogs who are afraid of children … or the word “no.” Some believe that their child is entitled to pet your dog. But when a parent doesn’t listen to you about your dog’s fears, both their child and your dog are put into a dangerous situation.
Still, our dogs deserve to be taken on walks, exploring their neighborhood. So, what is the right course of action?
“Since parents will sometimes find a bland ‘no’ to be an invitation for conflict, it’s best to avoid the situation completely, or else do a quick intervention to get the child on your team,” says Kristi Benson, dog musher, certified dog trainer and owner of Kristi Benson Dog Training in Canada. “To avoid the situation, you can simply turn and leave in a hustle, or you can stop the family in their tracks with a firm ‘no petting, sorry.’”
What if your dog is comfortable around children, but doesn’t like to be touched by strangers? If you are someone who likes to interact, you can ask the child to help you with a fun game instead of petting the dog, says Benson. Typically, this will sound like:
Thank you for asking, but my dog doesn’t like being patted. Can you help my dog with a fun game instead? I’ve got a treat in my pocket here, and together we’ll ask my dog to sit, and once she sits, I will give her a treat. This is how we motion with our hands to ask for a sit. Can you copy me?
“This allows kids to interact with the dog and gives them something to do with their hands instead of reaching towards your dog,” says Benson. “It also helps them to learn that dogs, just like humans, deserve bodily autonomy.”
If the parent actively encourages his or her child to touch your dog, Benson suggests you exit stage left — and quickly. “Slide your hand up the leash and back away in a fast trot, making a funny sound to get your dog’s attention, then turn and go.”
When you are out of sight or when you get home, Benson suggests giving your dog a treat or two. This can help your dog to learn a new association: kids predict treats, so maybe they’re not so scary.
Related: Kids Prefer Dogs Over Their Siblings