By Stephanie Ila Silver-Silberstein
“Timmy is PETRIFIED of dogs!” As the owner of a dog and the mother to two young children, this statement is a huge source of stress for me. It also happens to be just as disconcerting when I hear “Timmy LOVES dogs”. Both scenarios require sensitivity, preparation and attention from both me and Timmy’s mom and dad. I truly love hosting playdates. I love watching my children have fun with their friends, creating happy memories and filling my house with tons of love and smiles. I want nothing more than for my children’s friends to have a fun, safe and wonderful experience each and every time they visit our house and I would be devastated if having a dog kept that from happening. My hope in writing this article is to help parents prep and empower their children so that all encounters with dogs are positive ones. And there’s no time like the present when helping kids adapt to life in a canine-loving world.
Despite stereotypes of young children begging their parents to get a dog, experience has shown me that about half the kids who come over for playdates are scared of dogs. Small, big, fluffy, drooling – it doesn’t matter – they’re scared. The other half “loves them”… “can’t get enough of them”. Both types of kids totally freak me out. In the first example, you have a child screaming, shrieking and jumping into his or her mother’s arms, all of which stresses out a dog who might already be anxious. In the second example, the child is getting right in the dog’s face to kiss him, grabbing him from behind or patting his head with ‘love at first sight’ gusto. But here’s the thing: Even the sweetest, most mild-mannered golden retriever could have a momentary lapse in otherwise good behavior. Even a harmless-looking fluffy, tail-wagging mini-pupster could potentially nip, scratch or bite and in turn, traumatize your little one (not to mention the dog’s owners).
However, throughout my years of hosting playdates, I’ve found that there is, in fact, a third type of kid. We’ll call him “Disinterested Kid”. This kid, more often than not, has a dog of their own at home and has therefore lost interest in other people’s dogs. The novelty has worn off, and as a result, this kid instinctually does what my mother used to tell my childhood friends every time they came through my front door to meet the insane dog I grew up with: “IGNORE THE DOG!” Oh, how I wish all children could actually do that.
Because they can’t make small talk like humans can, dogs need a chance to check you out or rather, sniff you out. Most dogs are protective of their home turf, not to mention their family members, so any sudden moves can make them feel threatened. Whether on the street or at the front door, the best course of action is to remain calm and still, ask if the dog is friendly and then, if invited to do so, put your open palm out to be sniffed and let the dog come to you. Pretending the dog doesn’t exist and going about your business until the dog gets used to your presence can also do the trick. Of course, that could be challenging for kids as well as adults, especially if you have a barker or jumper on your hands, but nevertheless, anything you can do to make the dog feel at ease is the best case scenario.
My dog is awesome…when you’re not around. He’s sweet and affectionate and… wait for it…so quiet! He’s gentle with my children, cuddles with me on the couch like nobody’s business and I genuinely feel safe and protected with him around. But man, oh man, when people come over, get the earplugs! We’ve tried everything. You name it: citronella collars, Thundershirts, a can of coins, water bottles, busy bones, keeping him on a leash, disconnecting the doorbell, putting the dog in the other room with a white noise machine on, doggy daycare, behavioral dog therapists… all to no avail. Basically, if there’s a kid (or adult) in the house who makes a big deal about the dog, whether out of fear or love, get the Advil out STAT! The dog barks, the kid screams, the dog barks again, the kid screams again… the vicious cycle continues. Fortunately, it’s never turned into actual viciousness with my dog. But as I said earlier, with most dogs, you just never know.
To reiterate, I love having your children over, regardless of how they feel about dogs, and my door is open to all of them – always. I’m writing this public service type article to help ensure a positive canine-experience for everyone. Parents should empower children with a specific routine when encountering dogs. Remind kids with puppy-phobia that screaming and jumping can be scary for dogs and that dogs will be at ease when they’re at ease. Explain to your canine-loving, dog-obsessed children that they should ask permission before approaching a dog and understand that like people, not every dog likes affection upon first meeting someone. I’m aware that all of these suggestions are easier said than done and rationalizing with young children can be challenging, to say the least. But for everyone’s sanity and safety, it’s worth a shot.
Dogs bring so much joy to life. My hope is that boys and girls, at any age, can experience that for themselves.