I recently had a ‘parenting first’ when I learned that both my children are terrified of…puppies.
I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The only dog they’ve really been around is our 11-year old basset hound mix, “Hubert”, who does a wonderful impersonation of a bump on a log. But when my Dad decided to get an 8-week old yellow lab puppy, I assumed our 6 and 4-year old sons would be so excited to meet him! Who doesn’t like puppies?!
I took them over to my Dad’s house and at first both the boys were all “oooh’s” and “ahhh’s” at how cute the puppy was. The tiny lab frolicked around their legs, but as he got more excited, started jumping up on them. In his little puppy excitement, he nipped at their hands and clothes and his over-size paws scratched their legs. Both kids toppled over on the ground, which just gave the puppy more accessibility to frolicking on them.
Apparently, this was just too much for the kids to handle and they took off running into the yard, screaming like giant-sized squeaky toys. Of course, the puppy assumed the chase was on, and took off after them. I swear you would have thought a man in a ski mask and chainsaw was chasing my kids the way they screamed in terror running from that adorable little puppy. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The kids eventually made it to safety atop a picnic table where the tiny werewolf couldn’t reach them. I just stood there, shocked beyond belief that my kids were screaming and crying that a PUPPY was going to get them.
That evening I was talking to my husband and he admitted that as a child he had been quite scared of rambunctious dogs too because he didn’t have a dog growing up. I, on the other hand, as a child had various dogs and litters of puppies always at our house. I never remember a time being afraid of them. Getting pummeled by a puppy was a regular-day occurrence for me. I just had no idea how to react to my kids’ ‘irrational’ fear.
So, the next day I took the boys back to my Dad’s house for round 2 with the vampire pup. This time I sat on the ground with him next to me while my sons, one at a time, sat in my lap, gently petting his back. If he turned to nip or lick them I would give him a chew toy instead. If he tried to jump on them I would gently pull him back down, reminding my kids that their high-pitched squeal of terror only sounded like a squeaky toy to the puppy. I encouraged them to stay calm around him. Eventually I had them tossing a tennis ball and laughing at how he’d trip over his own paws to get it. Slowly they started to realize he wasn’t a horrible creature from their nightmares. They’re still too scared to be around him unrestrained though, so I reached out to a dog trainer we know, Lindsey Reese of Positively Dogs, who shared her professional advice on working with children and young puppies:
“It is true that many kids are terrified of puppies, and typically kids under the age of 6 years old have the toughest time. Puppies come equipped with sharp needle teeth, and when you are small and don’t have the height or reaction time to prepare yourself for the little land shark, it can be super scary and even hurt. For example, when I arrive for an in-home training visit I am introduced to terrified children who have been living on the back of furniture or counter tops for weeks in order to avoid the puppy shark teeth. Not to mention the moms who are crying out of frustration of how to manage it all and wondering what they have gotten themselves into.
But typically to help kids feel more comfortable with puppies, you have to use space management. Keeping puppies routinely occupied with toys and chews is a great strategy for redirection, and by using baby gates to separate kids and puppy when excitement or normal puppy mouthing ensues is a must. If kids are meeting a puppy they don’t live with, it is best for kids to allow the puppy to come up to them with an adult handling the puppy on a harness with leash. The puppy owner can be feeding the puppy treats while kids pet the puppies back. I always have kids avoid petting a puppy’s head or getting in their face to avoid needle teeth. This will set the puppy and kids up for success.
As a professional in dog behavior development, my main goal for parents is to teach kids how to interact appropriately with dogs and be knowledgeable that puppies under 16 weeks of age will be bouncy and mouthy and they may not be appropriate for interactions off leash with young kids. If kids or puppies are overwhelmed or not liking the interaction, our job is to make the interaction shorter or better so the long term relationship will continue to be positive and not be damaged. Some great resources on this topic are Colleen Pelar’s “How to Live with Kids and Dogs without Losing Your Mind”, and a recent article by Pat Miller called “Kidding Around” in Whole Dog Journal.”
Thanks to Lindsey’s advice, I’m planning to setup more positive interactions with my boys and their Grandpa’s new puppy that hopefully won’t give them nightmares afterward. As a parent, you learn something new every day!
Mandy Watts is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Crownsville with her husband, Justin, who runs their family business, and their two sons, 5-year-old James and 3-year-old Luke.