Dear Mary Pat,
As I check off my list of things to get done before going to my sister-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving I’m starting to get anxious about my daughter’s reaction to their dog. Roxy is a 100-pound super excitable black lab who charges the door barking anytime she hears the doorbell. When you’re a 40”-tall four-year-old, those 100 pounds may as well be 1,000 pounds coming at you. I’m not really a fan of dogs either. Roxy lacks training but that’s out of my control. Should I ask that they put the dog out of sight, try to teach my daughter not to be afraid, or just plan on holding her the entire day? I don’t want her fear to grow into a phobia but I don’t know where to start.
Dear Protective Mama,
Children will have a lot of fears as they grow. A lot of things are new to them or appear scarier than they actually are. Fear of dogs is common for children and some adults.
You first need to focus on your own dislike of dogs. You mentioned you’re not a fan. Your daughter is probably picking up on that. If you show fear or dislike, you are reinforcing the idea that dogs are scary. You’re not going to be able to accomplish all of this in one holiday. You both need to take baby steps. See if your neighbor has a smaller dog or a calmer dog that you can expose your daughter to. Get some books at the library that show different breeds and talk to her about them. According to experts, dogs wearing costumes or bandannas are less threatening to a child. Also check out some books on dog behavior. Dogs usually have very clear body language that will make it obvious whether they should be approached or not. Roxy charging the door is normal since she is doing her job and protecting the home. After her owners tell her that it’s OK, she should calm down.
Maybe you could ask if Roxy can be put away, at least for a little while. Then you’ll have an entire year to overcome this together. You don’t need to get to the point where you want a dog (but if that happens that would be nice too) but if you’re both able to be around dogs without fear, that is going to make going to other people’s houses much more enjoyable.