How To Traumatise Small Children Without Really Trying

First, to conclude the last post, here are the falsities, in reverse order:

  • I wish number 5 was true.  My kids are impossible to feed, and I could use an entire crew of culinary experts devoted to fixing the problem.
  • My idea of “working out” is writing my blog from a cafe instead of at home.
  • Anyone who has seen me in person knows # 2 is a lie. In our youth-obsessed culture, no one dyes her hair white, unless the performing arts are involved.
  • The first claim was a trick question.  I did take arts in university, but it was no dramatic reversal.  I failed third-term math in grade 12, and flunked out of physics completely in grade 11.  I got 90s in biology though– would have been an excellent biologist, but a lousy scientist.  So I got a double honours B.A. in English and Creative Writing, a Master’s in English Lit, and then went back for a Master’s in educational psychology.  In spite of all this, I am still unemployed, probably because I never took a degree in job-finding.  So, to preserve my sanity, I take the dog to the park and write a blog about it.

Yes, Number 4 was the correct answer.  Some of you may now pat yourselves on the back.  The rest of you go sulk somewhere and mumble, “No fair!”

Now on to other things….

Thanks to the ed. psych. degree, I actually know a thing or two about how people learn.  Often, small children learn from the examples set for them by friends and family members; when mommy is terrified of the dog, it’s not surprising that little Sophie is terrified too.  Yet I have friends who absolutely love Our Best Friend, but their children recoil in  horror.  I would love to know, where does this fear come from?

Part of the fear, of course, comes from the lack of dogs in our community, but that’s not the whole story. Last week, coming home from the park with Our Best Friend, I walked past Ben’s house. His six-year-old was out front playing with the upstairs neighbour.  Now, the boy from upstairs barely knows me, though I know his mother quite well, while Ben’s little Howie has known me all his life.  Ben and his wife love animals, including OBF, and the kids know it; little Johnny-from-upstairs’s mother… not so much.  She’s not scared; she’s just not a dog lover.  So which of the two boys would you guess showed more interest in OBF?

The conversation went like this:


ME:  Of course you can!  (To dog):  OBF, sit.

Dog sits.  Little boy comes down the hill and cautiously pats the dog.

ME: Take off your mitten and feel how soft his ears are! (Little boy removes mitten and REALLY pats the dog.)

JFU (to Howie): Come pat the dog!

HOWIE:  No!  I’m scared!  He’s going to bite me!

JFU (puzzled):  No he’s not!  Come pat him!

HOWIE:  No!!  He’s going to bite me!

JFU: But he’s a nice dog!  He doesn’t bite! (Puts his mitten back on and moves back.)

ME (to JFU):  Did the dog bite you?

JFU: No…

ME: Are you sure?  Maybe you should count your fingers!

JFU (counting his fingers):  One, two, three, four, five!

ME: Got them all?

JFU:  Yes!

ME:  Then I guess he didn’t bite you!

JFU and I laughed, but Howie is not convinced.  I tell young Johnny to visit us any time he likes. 

I promise you Howie’s parents love animals. Howie’s older brothers have played with OBF in our back yard a number of times.  Where does Howie’s fear come from?  And why is Johnny, who has had almost zero positive exposure to animals, so fascinated and fearless?

Two weeks ago, we had lunch guests who came with four girls, ages one, three, five, and eight.  The baby was indifferent to the dog; ages three and eight were initially nervous, but the eight-year-old was all over Our Best Friend by the end of the afternoon.  The five-year-old screamed in terror every time she heard the tags on his collar rattle.  Like little Howie, she was thoroughly convinced OBF would bite her. It was a very trying afternoon for her. Nothing her parents said, nothing she saw, could convince her that the dog wouldn’t bite her.  By the end of the day, the mother wondered if she should consult a psychologist.


I wouldn’t bother.  My Middle Child’s best friend, Yvonne, was equally terrified of dogs at that age.  She and her family came to visit us up north one summer, where we were babysitting a friend’s cottage, along with the cats and her dog Blackie.  Now, Blackie is the gentlest, sweetest dog in creation.  She doesn’t even bark.  If you step on her, she licks your hand.  (Honest.) And Yvonne spent the entire day screaming in terror at the sight of her, which confused Blackie and made her very sad.

It took Yvonne a few years.  By the time she was seven or eight, she could push past the dog and pretend she wasn’t there.  Now, at age 12, she is a raging dog lover.  I take her home from school every day, and if I don’t have the dog in the car, she lets me know how unhappy she is.  Her mother got so sick of the nagging refrain, “Can we get our own dog? Please, please please?” she fined her five cents every time the word “dog” came past her lips. (I almost got fined for encouraging her.)

So I have reason to hope that, with enough positive exposure, Howie, my friend’s five-year-old, and other assorted frightened children will come around in time. (Not so sure about the frightened parents, though.) We just have to bring more doggie ambassadors– ones a little less intimidating than Our Best Friend– into the neighbourhood.

(This post was part of the Saturday Blog Hop– click here to join in!)


About one person's view

I'm the mother of three girls, three cats, and a dog. All need constant attention, but only the dog likes to go for long walks!
This entry was posted in children, Dogs, pet ownership and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How To Traumatise Small Children Without Really Trying

  1. Ummm…no fair. That’s right, I’m sulking. Trick question?!

    For me, I overcame my fear of dogs through interaction. We didn’t have a dog growing up (which was odd, because I grew up in the country) and it took me a long time to get comfortable.

    I’m so glad to hear JFU still has all of his fingers. 🙂

  2. VSL Poltroon says:

    But did you ever kiss the editor of The Radio Times?

  3. Yay I guessed right!
    I think it’s great that you tried to reassure the little boy. You never know, in time he may come around.

  4. SR says:

    I think you are right on about natural fears… Only in the last year has my oldest gotten comfortable around animals (and all of DH’s siblings have big dogs). Number 2 was always fairly comfortable and our three year old is petrified. Last summer she kept worrying that the birds would bite her!

  5. Interesting. First ( no ‘ly’), I was right, I said #4! I am pretty chuffed with myself.
    Second, as mom of screaming 5 year old, I think I should let you know that she did not stop talking about OBF for at least 2 days after. As if they were the best of friends. She loves the idea – in theory of course.
    Maybe we should get a dog? Will you take him to the dog park for us – because as you know – I am terrified!

    • I think EVERYONE should have a dog (or cat, or both!). You need something very gentle that doesn’t bark much, and until you move into the NEW HOUSE, doesn’t need out much! 🙂

      Youl’ll come with us to the park– try it, you’ll love it!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Just found your blog from the hop and have enjoyed browsing around; you are a great writer. I am also a mom of three who shares her time with a spouse and a slew of critters. Unlike you though, I use my furries as an excuse to spew random absurdity into cyperspace. 😉

  7. Hi! We came here via the blog hop, and after reading your post, we’ve decided our Mom is an oddity. (We already know she’s weird, but now she’s an oddity, too….) When Mom was 4 she lived in Saudi Arabia and got bit by a wild dog. She was rushed off to the only hospital (it was 1974…. so it was an open-air, dirty place with flies everywhere) and Mom’s parents discovered that Mom was allergic to the rabies shot they normally give to people. Apparently the only solution was the keep the wild dog around (by feeding it) and see if it showed any signs of rabies. If so, I guess they would have shot Mom or something. Anyhoo, many years later, Mom STILL has the scar from the bite on the back of her leg. And yet, she has NEVER had a fear of dogs (which may explain how she got close enough to a wild dog to get bit in the first place….). She didn’t have a fear of Saudi Arabia, either, although she isn’t too keen on needles. Go figure! Heehee! We’ll be back to read more!

    *kissey face*
    -Fiona and Abby the Hippobottomus

  8. jacquelincangro says:

    This got me thinking …do children go through a fear period as a normal part of the developmental process? I’ve read that dogs have a similar time frame. Up to age 16-18 weeks is the prime socialization period. Then most puppies have a fear period where they may be afraid of things they hadn’t previously been afraid of. Depending on their exposure – reaction from their owners, experiences, etc, they may move on just fine or the fear may remain.
    Hopefully Howie will come to love OBF in time! 🙂

    • I really think it can be a personality thing. Another friend has a two-year-old who is obsessed with OBF, and wants to come see him every day. And when we first got Our Best Friend, he used to yelp in fear every time we turned on the washing machine or the dishwasher. Took a few months, but he got over it!

  9. T says:

    you’ll be happy to know that Little Miss A seems to no longer make a big swerve to bypass any oncomming dog walking towards us…or even look back with extremely distrusting eyes for that matter..sometimes!!!
    As a six year old who has been attacked three times( ONe big mix and two little ankle bitters!), she has every right to be afraid. HOWEVER….as her parents are determined to help our children understand and be attentative to any animals body language, we hope she’ll be asking to take your OBF for a walk any day….ok, maybe any decade now!!!!ha!ha!

  10. Silverycloud says:

    I was once bitten by a dog when I was about 12. A small bite, it didn’t even break the skin. Another time, a dog jumped me and scared me to death. Still, I never had the kind of fear of dogs like some people I know (including my own husband). I’m not entirely comfortable being around animals, but I don’t dislike them, and I definitely don’t fear them.

  11. Hi! I really enjoy reading your blog. I have awarded you with the Stylish blogger Award. Stop by my blog to pick up the “award”. All the best!

  12. thatjenk says:

    I won! I won! (I’m relishing because it’s so rare.)

    Also, this story about the neighbourhood kids is hilarious. Based on size alone, Moses encounters many kids who try to reason between their curiosity and uncertainty. Sometimes they suck it up and go for the pet, sometimes they don’t. All kids leave with as many fingers as they arrived with, though. Like you and YBF, we just try to be the best representatives we can.

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