Your well-trained dog loves children. He wags his tail in anticipation and pulls on his leash when he sees a family walking toward him on his afternoon walk.
At that moment, your dog is life-threatening, and you don't even know it.
My daughter and I walk toward you. In the best scenario, I will see your dog before she does and guide her in another direction before she sees him. Worst case, my daughter will notice your dog first. If my hand is not in hers—if I am handing her little sister her sippy cup or tying someone's shoe—she may run to avoid your dog. She is too young to understand that some things should be feared more than others, so she will run into oncoming traffic to avoid him.
This happened to us a year ago. Thankfully, I pulled her back onto the sidewalk as the car slammed to a stop.
It is my responsibility to keep my daughter safe and to do everything I can to help her overcome her fear. If you're reading this, I suspect you're a conscientious pet owner. Maybe you'd like to know what a child with dog phobia experiences and how you might help. So here goes:
1. Your dog is never the problem, but you might be.
When my daughter was 3, a neighbor walked his dog past our house without a leash. When the beautiful black lab bounded into our yard and ran straight for my child, it unleashed an all-consuming dog phobia that wreaked havoc on our lives for the next two years. In a 10-second encounter, this one careless pet owner had a life-altering impact on my daughter, but many others have unwittingly reinforced her fear.
2. If dogs are prohibited, that means no dogs, even yours.
Not only did my kid now fear pre-K, but she also trusted me less.
As her mother, going out was a delicate balance between doing things I knew she'd enjoy and the agony of watching my child tense up tighter than an accountant in April. Before every outing for about a year, my daughter would ask: "Will there be dogs there?"
If the answer was "maybe," her eyes would widen with fear and anxiety would grip her until we returned home.
If the answer was "no," the muscles in her little shoulders would relax. She trusted me when I told her a place was dog-free. So, when parents brought their dogs to the school playground, despite posted signs, not only did my kid now fear pre-K, but she also trusted me less.
I will never tell a rule-breaking pet parent to take a hike in front of my kid. I want her to think dogs are fine, but know that I am cursing you in my head.
3. We can both agree that service dogs are an awesome exception.
When we happened upon a service dog inside Starbucks, I pointed to the dog's vest and explained it was helping someone. I told my daughter the dog was too busy working to bother her and that only the best-behaved dogs became service animals. It was the first step in many on our journey to diminish her fear. She watched the dog carefully as she munched her cookie, and from that day on, she understood that some dogs could be gentle.
4. Respect leash laws for your dog's safety and my sanity.
If you won't consider the well-being of my child, please consider the well-being of your dog.
Soon after the service dog encounter, we taught our daughter that dogs on a leash could not run and jump on her. We might cross the street to avoid one, but she no longer ran in terror at the mere sight of an animal three blocks away.
I can't express the improvement this made in both her life and mine. We can now go on walks without four adults flanking her on all sides.
If you break this rule, brace for the wrath of dragon mama. OK, I don't breathe fire. But when my neighbor let his dog run leash free in my yard AGAIN, I gave him a chewing-out like only a postpartum, lactating mother with three hours of sleep can give. He wisely grabbed his dog and backed away.
If you won't consider the well-being of my child, please consider the well-being of your dog. They are one dash into the street or one rough dog-on-dog encounter away from serious injury.
5. Size doesn't matter.
Really. One of the dogs my daughter fears most is my aunt's Dachshund. Saying things like "Oh but he's so little" isn't helpful, and it belittles my daughter's fear.
6. Your well-behaved dog is still scary.
Your dog could be Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club, and my daughter may shriek at the sight of him.
One dog owner was offended when my daughter screamed for me to hold her. "There's no need for that," she snipped. "My dog is very well-behaved."
Your dog could be Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club, and my daughter may shriek at the sight of him. Don't take it as an assessment of your pet parenting skills.
7. Keep your advice to yourself.
I appreciate your helpfulness, but believe me, I've tried it already: controlled interactions with calm dogs, careful discussions, picture books with friendly Labradors and hours of expensive therapy. All I really want is to get away from you and your pet, so I can calm my child.
8. Be aware.
Though my daughter is still very much afraid of dogs, she's now old enough to articulate her fear. "Please, I don't like dogs," she says in a tone so earnest I have yet to meet anyone who didn't scurry to put distance between her and their pet. Making others aware of her fear has given my daughter a tool to cope with her anxiety.
Your amazing dog has a right to a beautiful walk down the same sidewalk as my amazing child. I'm not asking you to cross the street or alter your course. I'm just asking you to keep your dog on a leash and away from dog-free areas. If you see us approaching and notice the fear on my child's face, give us the space we need to get by. Because even the briefest interaction with your dog, good or bad, can have a lasting impact.
The world is filled with great dogs and great dog owners. I really hope if our paths cross, you're one of them.