How to Help a Dog Afraid of Kids: The Essential Do’s and Don’ts

It’s a beautiful thing to raise dogs and children together, and to witness that growing bond throughout the years. Not only do they have a lifelong best friend, they learn compassion and care of others. That plan falls apart when you find out your dog is afraid of children.

Using a process known as desensitization, you gradually introduce your dog to children so he becomes more comfortable around them. While the training is going on, manage your environment so they are not left alone together and provide your pup with a safe space to retreat to where no kids are allowed. If you have a puppy, socialization is key whether or not you have children.    

Why are dogs afraid of kids?

Kids aren’t the gentlest around dogs, especially when they’re really young. They pull tails, grab fur and stick their fingers in their face. Some dogs will be more tolerant while others will show aggression by snapping, growling and even biting. That aggression is usually fear based.

They had little or no interaction with kids when they were puppies. In order for dogs to live happily, calmly and fear free in our world they need to be socialized. That means exposing them to as many different sights, sounds, places, people and things as possible.

A puppy not used to being touched can have a negative reaction to both children and adults. It’s important to play with your puppy’s ears, touch his paws, very lightly pull on his tail, and be able to look in his mouth. Practice often but keep sessions short, you don’t want to annoy him. Get other members of your household and even friends to do this as well. Being handled will make visits to the vet and groomer a lot more pleasant too.

Tips for dogs and children living together

Although we’re talking specifically about fearful dogs in this article, the tips I’ll be discussing apply to all dogs.

Set rules

It’s important for your children’s safety they follow the rules you set out regarding interaction with the family dog. If they’re too young to understand, you need to supervise them when they’re together, and keep them separate when you can’t.

  • No taking the dog’s toy, especially if they’re playing with it
  • No taking a bone or any food from the dog if they’re eating it
  • If your dog is hurt or not feeling well, the kids cannot approach him
  • Do not wake the dog if he’s sleeping
  • If your dog is deaf and/or blind, they should not go up to them and try and play
  • Don’t let your child climb on the dog, pull his ears or in any way tease or bother him

A space of his own

Since your dog is a little bit (or a lot!) afraid of kids, it’s only fair he has a safe place of his own to escape to, no children allowed! In addition to the bed he probably already has in a high traffic area in your home, how about a second one behind the couch, in the laundry room or even a crate kept open with a cover for privacy?

Supervision at all times

Dogs and small children should never be left alone together, especially if you have a fearful dog. 

Never force interaction

The way to help your dog overcome fear of children is not to force him to stand there while the object he fears approaches. It’s not a nice thing to do, and it’s dangerous. Fear causes aggression and if your dog can’t flee from what he fears, he may fight to protect himself from that perceived danger or threat.

How to desensitize your dog to children

If you’ve recently adopted a puppy, congratulations. If you have children in the home or they visit, make sure socializing your puppy around them is included in that training.

NOTE: Socialization is important, no matter what age your new dog is.

There are so many things you must teach your puppy it can be overwhelming. Commands like “sit” “stay” “leave it” and “come” are essential so get started on those right away.

Teaching your dog to be comfortable around children should be a very gradual process, initially with some distance between them and over time they can be brought closer together.

The various methods are not listed in any particular order, but merely to provide you with options.

NOTE: There is no timeline when it comes to training, it takes as long as it takes. Rushing doesn’t help, in fact it can set your training back. 

How to Help a Dog Afraid of Kids The Essential Do's and Don'ts

Method one – A trip to the park

Take your dog to the park, keep him on a leash and have a pouch full of treats for easy access to rewards. It’s a good opportunity for him to see kids laughing, running around and being their naturally loud and boisterous selves. Allowing him to watch from a distance and giving him treats while he remains calm is a great way to introduce him to children. The more you expose him in that manner, the more used to them he will get.

Over time bring your dog closer and closer to them, giving him treats as long as he remains calm around them.

Method two – handling

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a dog not used to being handled will find vets, groomers and children hard to deal with.

With your dog next to you and a pouch full of treats rub his ears, play with his tail, give him a gentle nudge, play with his paws… giving him treats as you’re doing this. Keep each session short, maybe just a minute or so to start. If at any time your dog tries to back away or seems annoyed, you’re too rough or doing it for too long so dial it back.

This doesn’t mean she will love being treated this way by your kids, but it may make her less reactive.

Method three – mimic the moves of a baby

If your baby isn’t crawling yet, this is a great exercise to get your dog used to a small being making his way towards him in a completely different way than he’s used to.

It’s as simple as crawling towards your dog, and when she looks at you give her a treat. Have everyone living in the household do the same, and maybe you can get visitors to participate as well.

Method four – practice walking by children

This exercise is going to take place outside in a big backyard or quiet area of the park, and you’re going to need the help of some well-behaved children. It doesn’t matter if they belong to you, friends or neighbors, just as long as they’re not afraid of dogs.

Your dog will be on a leash and you’ll give the kid treats your dog loves!!

The exercise is simple:

  • Bobby (that’s what I’m calling the kid so I don’t keep calling him the kid!!) will walk towards you and your dog
  • Your dog will be on the opposite side of Bobby, meaning you will be closest to Bobby when you pass each other
  • While your dog is watching him, Bobby will toss a treat in his direction and keep walking
  • Let your dog eat the treat then you both carry on walking

The point of this exercise is to teach your dog that good things happen (delicious treats!!) when he’s in the presence of a child.

Keep each practice session to about 5-10 minutes, and do it every day.

It is as simple as that!!

The question is, how far apart do Bobby and the dog have to be?  

Let’s say your dog is fine around children as long as they’re at least 2 feet apart. Great, so have Bobby start at 3 or even 4 feet apart just to be sure. 

Your goal

You are working towards closing the gap so they can walk right by each other without your dog being afraid.

How you’ll make this happen

After each training session you will determine, based on your dog’s reaction during that session, whether you need to practice more at this distance or you’re ready for Bobby to move an inch or two closer the next time.

NOTE: This can take weeks or even months.

 

For information about my virtual training and dog care consultancy service, and to book an appointment, please visit my services page.

Hindy Pearson
I am a dog trainer and behaviour consultant, specialising in working with first time dog owners. Whether you're thinking of getting a dog and aren't sure if it's the right time, or you've been sharing your life with one for awhile but there are issues you can't resolve, I am here for you. No matter where in the world you live I can help.

12 Comments

  1. Rachel

    That’s a great tip to put the dog in a room separated by a gate so he can see what’s going on. I hope Muttley learns that kids can be okay.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      It’s so wonderful to raise kids with animals, it’s really in everyone’s best interest to make it as positive an experience as possible. At least they can still see each other if there’s a gate and take the time needed to get everyone used to each other.

      Reply
  2. Ruby and Kristin

    Hope Muttley learns to be more comfortable around kids. Also hope the family follows your advice and doesn’t leave the kids alone with him. I’m going to tweet this out as well!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I do too! Thanks for sharing, much appreciated.

      Reply
  3. Talent Hounds

    Great advice. I have a reactive fearful rescue and we work a lot on desensitizing him to dogs and strangers on his leash with treats.. Still a work in progress but safer than he was. I have to be so careful walking him or with visitors.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      My dog is exactly the same way! We’ve made tons of progress since we first adopted him, but he’s always going to be a work in progress. It helps so much when they’re food motivated doesn’t it?

      Reply
  4. Cathy Armato

    It’s so sad when a pet is afraid of kids. Pets and kids can be so great together! Good advice. it’s hared because kids will always want to come over and pet the dog, but during this training you have to make sure they don’t.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
  5. Lola The rescued Cat

    Usually people hear about children being afraid of dogs, not the other way around. Hopefully Muttley will learn that kids can be fun!

    Reply
  6. Jana Rade

    I admire all dogs who can remain calm around kids, particularly the way most of them behave. Jasmine was great with that, no matter what stunts they pulled. But if I was a dog, most kids would freak me out too. Hell, they freak me out even as a person. 😉

    Reply
  7. JoeHx

    I’ll probably have the opposite problem with my son. He’s only five months old and we have two dogs. They’re somewhat indifferent to him, but he probably won’t be afraid of other dogs. So we’ll have to teach him to be respectful of other dogs he comes across and that he can’t go right up to them.

    Reply
  8. Sweet Purrfections

    I know my cats didn’t like toddlers! I remember a friend visiting with her two and the girls scattered under the bed quickly. I think it was their noise and energy level. It took a couple of days after they left for the girls (and me) to get back to normal.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I know what you mean, my cats were the same when my nieces were younger and they’d come to visit. They would scatter and hide under the bed, and take quite a bit of time to recover. The kids had a ball looking for them under the bed, they thought it was a game. I had to shut the bedroom door!

      Reply

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