Hello! I’ve been reading all your tips about babies and dogs (so good and important!) But, I’ve got a slightly different situation and I feel we may not be approaching it correctly. My baby just turned one this week. We do not have a dog at home. For many months he has been very scared of most dogs he comes into contact with. From a distance he is interested, but if they are close (especially if they are moving) he would cry and climb up me. I figured that was preferable to the opposite, but it had gotten to the point where he would get hysterical if a dog approached him, especially if it barked at all. In our extended family there are lots of family member dogs, so it has been challenging. We just spent 5 days with my family and 5 dogs. Being around them definitely has made him more comfortable, but at this point he would still never approach a dog on his own (good). The problem is that as we have been trying to show him dogs are ok, we have encouraged him to touch some of them a few times and every time he sees one and points we say “yup, there’s a puppy! Nice puppy.” I realize we should definitely stop ever encouraging touching, but what would you suggest about the rest to foster healthy boundaries and respect but not terror?
You are right that in many ways it is easier to establish appropriate ways for kids and dogs to relate to each other when they live in the same home, with acclimatization simply a part of daily life. Your baby is only one year old, and you will have much greater communication as he learns to speak and understand more of what you explain to him. It may be literally YEARS, however, before he’s at a developmental stage where you can have a rational conversation.
At this stage, the goal is to let dogs become just part of the scenery and nothing to be concerned about. I like to get my clients’ children to be “neutral” about dogs so the families can decide purposefully what activities they want to encourage going forward. This is true for both extremes: kids who try to get away from dogs, as well as, kids who pursue dogs.
Here are three pieces of the puzzle to help you and your baby manage everyday life where you are likely to encounter other people’s dogs. Any combination of two out of the three will be a big help — your job is to know what you’re dealing with any particular situation and match your child’s growing skills to the appropriate level of difficulty. At no point, really, is it reasonable to expect a one year old baby to take “responsibility” for his fears and emotions. This is 100% parent led (which means you get all the credit!).
- Dog Under Control; Out of Child’s Personal Space
- Child Has Strategy When Afraid
- Child’s Sensitivity to Dogs is Reduced
Step One: Dogs Under Control; Out of Baby’s Space
Sometimes we get too caught up going right to trying to change the little child’s feelings or the way they handle situations: “Don’t be scared;” “That dog isn’t going to hurt you;” “Stop crying;” “Stand still,” etc. Well, guess what? A lot of times it’s the DOG that is out of control and the child is very correct to be worried. Take a look at the situations that worry your child. Is the dog running towards your child? If not running, is the dog given the opportunity to come into your child’s personal space? Doesn’t matter if he’s “only going to ‘kiss’ the baby.” Is the dog in any way trying to engage with the baby within the baby’s personal space of about five feet? This is too much for a one year old baby to be asked to manage on his own. Add in barking and running and jumping and you have a lot of chaos for a baby to process. Many times, I would have to vote with the baby: This IS a scary situation!
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect dog owners to limit their dogs’ access to a baby’s personal space. Leashes make this pretty easy to do. I get it, though. People feel embarrassed when they don’t have control over their dogs’ behavior and the social pressure shifts to the baby’s reaction. If only the baby didn’t act so scared, it would be fine. But it’s really not your baby’s job to relieve other people’s discomfort with the untrained status of their dogs. As the parent, you will be the one to assess situations and protect your baby’s personal space so he doesn’t have to be frightened of dogs. Dogs are not as scary if they do not come close.
Realistically, can you make this happen with other people’s dogs? Sometimes, yes you can – it’s a matter of speaking up just like dog owners may have to learn to say “no” to toddlers that want to touch their dogs. See blog post National No You Can’t Pet My Dog Day and switch the roles, but also know that other people will not always be particularly understanding so there is an element of steeling yourself to be an effective voice for your baby. Other times, like when visiting family, you may need to go more than halfway and work out together how to manage everyone’s needs. It sounds like you did a good job making that happen for a five day visit with five dogs!
With the understanding that parents constantly need to assess and monitor situations for safety and appropriateness to baby’s current skill level, and that sometimes your only good option is to get out of Dodge, so to speak, the following two steps will help you and your baby manage typical, unavoidable encounters with well-meaning dogs.
Step Two: Rehearse Strategy When Child is Afraid
Regardless of whether it’s dogs or something else, most babies, toddlers and even older kids are going to be afraid of something at some point. My youngest child was petrified of the Hometown Buffet Bee mascot. He laughs about it now, but it was full-on stranglehold on Dad whenever the Bee was in sight. While it was easy enough for us to avoid Hometown Buffet on “Bee Nights,” a recurring unmanageable reaction needs a strategy for times when you cannot control the world for your children.
Before I give you some ideas, you must evaluate the intensity and pervasiveness of your child’s fear reaction. Consider whether this whole topic is better suited to a consultation with your child’s pediatrician rather than relying solely on advice you get online from a dog trainer.
In the example you described, besides feeling bad for your child’s distress, a big part of the issue is the over-the-top nature of how he is expressing his fear. Let’s think about what can he reasonably do instead to seek your protection and/or make the situation feel safe? Keep in mind that he is only one year old and has, at most, a very limited vocabulary and no personal freedom to just leave. Are you willing to pick him up if he requested more calmly? I’ll use that as an example, but it’s also okay to consider what works best for you and your son. Maybe it works better for him to stand behind you or maybe it’s practical for him to hold his ground a little bit longer. His abilities will all be changing as he develops, and you will have many, many more possibilities to help him manage in trying settings. One of my sustaining parenting mantras: “Today is Not Forever!”
For now, recognize that your son already has a functioning strategy: cry and climb up your leg. You may be able to forestall this reaction in Step One above by enforcing a “no dog fly zone” around your baby. If getting up in your arms remains the goal, offer that as early as possible in the sequence. The intent is to remove the need for the crying and climbing part of your son’s reaction. I know that, on the face of it, this seems like you are “rewarding” his fear. Whether or not that’s even possible is a whole other conversation. The practical point is that getting to what your child needs earlier in the sequence reduces the function of the crying and climbing — those undesired parts of his fear response are no longer necessary.
Let’s say now you are at the stage where you are protecting your baby’s space so there is less to be frightened of and picking him up as soon as he turns to you. Hopefully, these basic steps have dialed down the drama in the ordinary exposure to dogs. Now you can consider ways to encourage your child to wait a little longer or establish a specific way to request to be picked up. Playact your strategies like a game when your child is NOT afraid.
- A hand touch like a “High 5” is probably good for a one-year-old. Teach your baby to touch your hand in advance of picking him up. Make it funny like a “magic button” to get Mommy to pick you up. NOTE: be sure to honor this request or you will see the return of the tried and true strategy of crying and climbing.
- Practice a “Wait” signal as a promise that you WILL do the requested action. Pick your child up or otherwise address the situation before he gets frustrated or frightened. This is where the art of training comes in and you will know best what’s reasonable to expect from your child.
- Look into Baby Sign Language to enhance communication with your baby. He’s at that in-between age where he clearly has needs he wants to communicate but is probably many months from being able to clearly articulate them. Baby Sign Language can help fill in that gap and reduce frustration. Here is a video on teaching the concept of “Wait:”
Step Three: Make Dogs Just Part of the Scenery
I think this gets to the heart of your question – how do you help your baby not be afraid of dogs but yet not go to the other extreme and want to pursue or touch dogs in an overly magnetized way? The key is to focus on dogs being neutral. Part of the scenery. A dog is not something to freak out about nor something to get too excited about.
Good for you to have already noticed that encouraging baby to touch dogs now sends a mixed message when later you want to say, “Wait! Actually don’t touch all the dogs…”
Generally speaking, if your baby is not put into truly frightening situations with dogs up close and personal (Step One) and he can get your help in a less frantic way (Step Two), you can begin to experiment with gradual acclimation to dogs as part of the environment. Notice that this is very different from “meeting” dogs or trying to convince a baby that dogs are nice. You are not trying to convince him of anything. The goal is that he takes little notice of dogs because he is busy doing something else and/or dogs have faded into the background because no one takes any special notice of them. We are aiming more for the nonchalant, “Oh, yeah, there’s a dog. Cute! Do you want your snack? Can you spy the red car?” and be on your way rather than talking up the dog as not being scary.
Depending on how intent your child is on scanning the environment for dogs, you may have to plan ahead and bring along something novel or very high interest for your child. Essentially, you are testing: Does he care that much about dogs if he is busy with _____________? At what distance does it feel safe and easy, a non-event? That’s where you want to be in terms of acclimating your child. The great thing about being only one year old is that you can do all this in a stroller and easily control distance and even whether or not the dog is in sight.
At home, you can introduce more dog features to the background of daily life:
- For example, add a stuffed dog toy to his collection, making sure he has at least two other stuffed animals and you call it by a name to avoid confusion of “dog” meaning toy and also real life dogs. Don’t do anything specific with the dog toy – it’s not meant as a proxy for a real dog at this age; it’s simply meant to make the dog shape something more familiar. Or, if your baby is upset seeing the dog toy, this is an indication that this may be more serious and you need to get your pediatrician involved.
- Get some books with photos of real dogs. Libraries have beautiful books of dogs by breed. Page through and point out colors or look for interactive ways to notice things like which have their tongues out. “Can you stick your tongue out?” Establish that dogs are interesting to look at and then engage with you for the real fun and interaction. You can also do this as an overall animal game that happens to include dogs. Look for decks of cards with animal pictures or baby books with a variety of animals.
- Clothes with dogs on them also help normalize dogs. If my teenagers would let me, I’d still be picking out cute shirts with dogs for them to wear! Same thing with other everyday items — keep an eye out for dog versions. Sippy cups, plates, games. Once you start looking, you’ll see all kinds of baby stuff plastered with pictures of dogs.
- Play quiet dog videos while your child is doing something else. Don’t point out anything about the dogs; just let them be in the background – as if it is a relaxing video of a field of flowers. Check out this example! I got so sleepy just previewing it! There are all kinds of videos like this (but as a parent you know you have to preview everything and also make sure YouTube videos don’t have weird ads or automatically cycle to other videos). You can get a 14 day free trial to Dog TV to make it easier to run regular background dog relaxation videos on your TV.
I love how you are thinking through all the implications as you work to help your baby! My overarching advice is to remain neutral about dogs and let them fade into the scenery. Keep your child safe from dangerous or out-of-control up-close encounters with dogs, meet his needs, and be nonchalant about dogs. Do not label him as “scared of dogs” as if it is a lifelong condition. Use neutral or empowering phrasing to describe what he needs: “He does not enjoy sharp, piercing barks so close to his ears.” Always remember that he is just a baby. My guess is that this will all go away if you don’t make a big deal out of it. Consult your pediatrician if the easy steps are not sufficient.
P.S. As annoying as it can be to have your child escaping into your arms, there will come a day when you can no longer fix all his problems simply by picking him up. I distinctly remember when my kids aged out of the picking up stage and I was suddenly sad to realize I had one less option in my Mommy Toolbox.