The daycare child vs the at-home child
March 22, 2019 8:04 AM   Subscribe

I recently said something to the daycare teacher about my son’s fear of dogs. She was quite surprised to hear this as they go for walks every day and see tons of dogs. How can I promote this behaviour at home?

There are a few other things he does differently there (for example, he eats better) which I had chalked up the hive mind/peer pressure. I can see, for instance, how they might plop an identical plate of food in front of ten kids, and they are all eating it, so he does too.

But the dog one has been an issue for us because my dad has a dog and he’s terrified of it, and it’s been an issue going to his house because of it. I just can’t figure out if he’s a) not really that scared and somehow playing it up for me or b) he is really scared and is hiding it from them. Which it is will alter how I approach this issue. So what do I do now?

Kiddo is 2.5 and otherwise a cheerful, happy little guy.
posted by ficbot to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible he’s scared of some aspect of your dad’s dog rather than dogs as a class?
posted by corb at 8:10 AM on March 22, 2019 [24 favorites]

Like corb, I wonder if the breed might be an issue - for example, if your father had a German Shepherd but your child only sees beagles, poodles or other small dogs on his walks with the class it might be a problem.
posted by Roger Pittman at 8:22 AM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wonder if seeing the dogs that belong to strangers at a distance makes the difference?
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:33 AM on March 22, 2019

Seeing a dog in the street is quite different from being locked in a house with a dog that jumps up on you, knocks you over etc.. Is it possible that he is scared of the latter but not the former?

Maybe take a look at how your dad's dog is interacting with your son and see if there's anything you can help him with there? GL
posted by richb at 8:34 AM on March 22, 2019 [9 favorites]

Also does your dad's dog bark and run around and do general doggie things when you arrive. Because that can be pretty intense a daycare-aged child (it was more me and I love dogs now) in a way that just seeing a dog walk around on a leash or in a yard isn't.

I'd suggest letting your kid gently pet your dad's dog while your dad is holding him/keeping him calm to start with to help the pair of them get used to each other. As their mutual presence gets less remarkable they can start non-held petting and then maybe a little fetch/give some treats.

A lot of this depends on the temperment of the dog, but you don't seem to suggest that there are aggression issues in play. It just sounds like there's an excited and loud animal moving fast and unpredictably and that could easily freak a kid out.
posted by East14thTaco at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

+1 for the idea that it’s likely something about that specific dog, in those specific circumstances.

The food thing is incredibly common. My daughter’s classmate for a while was the son of the nursery chef, and even that kid rejected dishes at home that he’d happily eat at nursery, maintaining that they tasted totally different.
posted by Catseye at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

Nth-ing that it is probably something in particular with your dad's dog. Is that dog any combination of big, barky, jumpy? That can terrify a small child. There's a difference between seeing a big barky dog up close and a small quiet dog more at a distance.

How does your dad and/or family react when your son is afraid? Does everyone make sure the dog doesn't overwhelm the child? Is your son pushed to not be afraid and told he's a "sissy" or something?

I surmise that on daycare walks, dogs and kids alike are well supervised, the dogs are on leashes, and the kids are seeing the dogs from a distance. Your dad's dog may, at the very least, be invading your son's space, and if the adults minimize his fear it makes things worse.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

"see tons of dogs" sounds really different from being in a house where a dog lives and feels territorial. Does the daycare group approach dogs? How do they talk about dogs with the kids?

We have tried to instill the knowledge that not all dogs are friendly. Every time we see a dog that my kid might interact with, we say "do you think that is a friendly dog?" and then we ask the owner. My kid has learned to present a flat hand for the dog to smell, and if they are uninterested I redirect her, saying thank you to the owner and moving away.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:37 AM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

My son saw tons of dogs out and about in the neighborhood in his early years to the point that his first word was “woof.” Guess what? He’s terrified of dogs up close. He has always adored cats, even though his only exposure was to random neighborhood cats hanging out on the sidewalk.

Things that freak him out about dogs: they are unexpectedly loud when they bark, they can be literally the same height as a human child, they get excited and might knock you over, and they get all up in your personal space to smell/lick you. Over the years my kid has gotten to know exactly two dogs that he likes, and both are mellow, older dogs who like to nap. Some people are not dog people - I think your son is totally normal.

(I used to be totally comfortable around dogs until one bit me on the sidewalk as an adult - now I am way more wary than I ever was before)
posted by Maarika at 8:54 AM on March 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I'm also wondering if it's not just the particular dog, but also -- if there's tension around the subject, might your son be picking up on it?
posted by sm1tten at 9:08 AM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My toddler is obsessed with dogs. Spends all day at the window waiting for the dogs downstairs to go out onto the balcony. Prefers standing at the fence of the dog park staring over doing anything fun at the playground. Pleads for dog gifs on my phone. Selected three stuffed dogs as absolutely mandatory for falling asleep every night. Jumps up and down shouting excitedly every time he sees someone walking a dog on our block. But if the owner stops to let us get close to the nice doggo to pet it? He literally bursts into tears and tries to run away. Agreed w above. Dogs up close are to him a different experience than “dogs” as a concept.
posted by sestaaak at 9:10 AM on March 22, 2019 [13 favorites]

A bit tangential to the question, but we had some luck with May I Pet Your Dog? by Stephanie Calmenson with our kids. Similarly to many of the above answers, our kids enjoyed looking at dogs from a distance but were freaked out by them up close. The book goes into ways to recognize the dogs' moods, how to approach them safely, things not to do, and the like. Reading it with your son may give him more of a feeling of control in the situation?
posted by dellsolace at 9:46 AM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

But the dog one has been an issue for us because my dad has a dog and he’s terrified of it, and it’s been an issue going to his house because of it.

I think this dog fear is a great way to model some good behavior. The first is that you believe your child and you will protect them. My daughter around the same age started to get afraid of dogs and when I really paid attention to her experience, I totally switched from trying to get her to feel okay about them to taking her experience seriously and giving her tools to deal with it. Dogs are fast, they jump up and knock people over, they lick faces, they bark and, yes, some bite! And this happens with friendly dogs who are “great with kids.” Kids are outsized by dogs in their orbit and it’s kind of unfortunate that people let dogs get all over kids before establishing a kid’s openness to roughhousing and licking. If dogs stood 5 feet tall and slobbered in your face before knocking you to the ground, you might be more wary of them, too.

As for your Dad’s dog, I think it’s important to model respecting your child’s experience and guiding your Dad into creating a better experience for visits that involve the dog. Have him put the dog away initially. Make sure you take the brunt of the greeting when it does happen. Make sure your kid can observe from a safe distance.

For my kid, we talked a lot about not darting away from me when we encounter a dog because that’s more dangerous. She could be darting into the street or trip on a curb and if she’s far from me, I can’t protect her. When we encounter dogs, I don’t make her meet the dog unless she’s ready. I keep myself between her and the dog and I tell the owner, “Sorry, she’s had some bad experiences with dogs.” This usually goes over well and does result in the owner being cautious.

I don’t want her to have a fear of dogs but I also don’t think it’s super important for her to be friends with every random dog. We have friends we see regularly who have a big, barky dog who settles down once we are inside a few minutes and now she’s made friends with the dog and has a good time with her. She’s so proud of herself for being cool with this dog. But it had to happen on her own schedule.
posted by amanda at 10:01 AM on March 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

To be clear I'm not suggesting your dad's dog is aggressive or badly behaved. Dog behavior when you're 5'something that seems adorable looks really different when you're pushing 2'. So it's not nececarilly a"this dog is more unruly than other dogs" situation so much as it seems like "the kid's interactions with dogs close-up can be managed better."
posted by East14thTaco at 10:02 AM on March 22, 2019

Do you like dogs? Do you like your father's dog specifically? It's really, really easy for kids to pick up on any degree of fear or tension around animals from their parents - evolution has designed kids to take cues from their caretakers to tell them what animals are dangerous.
posted by waffleriot at 11:29 AM on March 22, 2019

Response by poster: Some good responses. I think, personally, that it is the barking which bothers him. The dog is a bit of a barker and jumper, even though he’s little, and there have been a couple of other times kiddo has not liked loud noises such as fire alarms, birds in a park etc. But then the daycare teacher also said that there are many things the other kids are afraid of (e.g. vacuum cleaners) and he’s not, so I don’t want to say he is ‘fearful’ and make that a self-fulfilling prophecy :-)

He sleeps with a stuffed dog. He likes pointing them out in books. I do think that from afar, he enjoys looking and pointing. He just doesn’t like them up close. It wouldn’t be an issue for me at all if it weren’t for my dad, and unfortunately, that is a more complex knot to unravel (e.g. I have asked for them to use a gate when kiddo is there, and it was not taken seriously) so I suspect not much will change.
posted by ficbot at 11:46 AM on March 22, 2019

My kid has learned to present a flat hand for the dog to smell, and if they are uninterested I redirect her, saying thank you to the owner and moving away.

Like Lawn Beaver, we're teaching our young one that we don't assume all dogs are friendly, we ask the dog's owner before greeting the dog, but this is where I diverge a little - I've always taught kids to offer their fist with the palm down. Less threatening to a dog than an outstretched hand, and a fist is harder to bite than a finger for a dog, so it also helps protect the kid. Then, if we find friendly dog, after dog has greeted you, we can pet.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:09 PM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I wonder if you could enlist your parents in a family effort to reduce your son's anxiety around their dog. Perhaps specific activities aimed at easing him into a comfortable relationship might include accompanying an adult in taking the dog (on a leash) for a walk, and having the dog somehow restrained within the home while you are visiting seem easy and obvious. Your son will feel protected from being jumped on if the dog is separated physically. I'm not a dog-owner, and don't know how one trains a dog to bark less, but perhaps some obedience training would at least help with the jumping, and might help with barking.

Speaking to them frankly about how their dog's behavior is scaring your son and is interfering with him wanting to visit might help them understand how important this actually is. Your parents are probably very used to the dog and think little of his jumpy, barky behavior, but to a small toddler, this can really matter. I would take your son's side in this.
posted by citygirl at 1:13 PM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Non-parent here but: I'd get him a stuffed animal that looks like dog. "It's a present from DOG'S NAME! This one is named DOG, too!" maybe also a book. Be sure to tell him that DOG said "hello" when you talked to dad. DOG might also occasionally request that you give SON a cookie or something. Tell him a bedtime story about SILLY DOG, he was JUMPING and BARKING (cue silly bark) today. Have DOG call on the phone and bark? IDK, basic bribery plus desensitivation? Can't hurt, might help.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 2:05 PM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Could you dogsit periodically, for an hour or a day or a weekend? Maybe in his own home where he feels safe, meeting the dog won't be so scary?

And apply some desensitizing techniques. Like maybe the first time, the dog just stays on your front lawn for a little while. Then another day, the dog comes on the porch. And then inside the door, but not all the way in. Then inside the house, but not off his leash. And then unleashed, but confined where there is a door or gate. And so on.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:46 PM on March 22, 2019

I agree that it's almost certainly the barking. My kid has had regular interaction with two dogs. Similar size and temperament, both family-friendly dogs used to kids. The one that barks loudly occasionally, she's completely wary of and is constantly on guard if they're in the same room. The one that never barks, she absolutely loves and will happily interact with and ask for by name. She was the same way when she met the first dog until the first time that the bark scared her and then it was game over, that one will forever be The Scary Dog.
posted by cpatterson at 2:56 PM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're getting him a stuffed dog that looks like Dog, Melissa and Doug make dogs in all different breeds that are A) Nicely realistic looking and B) Not crazy expensive.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:14 PM on March 22, 2019

I think some of it is the unexpected interaction. Like everyone else upthread, my toddler adores dogs, has a stuffed dog, likes Paw Patrol, etc. But if a dog comes over to him he looks absolutely horrorstruck. I’ve noticed a similar look of “what the hell, this isn’t what I signed up for” when strangers interact with him - he’ll happy point out “man”, “lady”, “hat” etc, but if the lady in question turns around and waves or smiles he looks aghast and hides behind me. He’s still learning his theory of mind at this stage, and the idea that random people (or dogs) in the street are independent beings and not just part of the scenery seems to be new and shocking to him.
posted by tinkletown at 6:25 PM on March 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

It wouldn’t be an issue for me at all if it weren’t for my dad, and unfortunately, that is a more complex knot to unravel (e.g. I have asked for them to use a gate when kiddo is there, and it was not taken seriously) so I suspect not much will change.

If you can't change the environment there (and I get it, I have family like that) you need be guarding your kid more at that house. Ideally holding your kid out of range until the dog calms down enough for kid to calm down. If the dog doesn't calm down, leave early. If what you really need are gates and your dad won't take you seriously, make your visiting contingent on it. (Provide a gate, if you can.) It's not fun, but your toddler needs to be safe and feel safe, and if that can't happen at your dad's house, then maybe he needs to visit you or meet in parks for awhile instead.
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:54 PM on March 24, 2019

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