Is Her Fear Controlling Her … Or Me?

I have 6-year-old twins: a girl and a boy.  My daughter is afraid of dogs, so I just adopted from the Humane Society a puppy 5 lb. terrier mix who will stay small and is very sweet. 

Hannah will pet Dory if someone is holding her, but she’s still terrified if the puppy is on the ground loose. She will scream and stay on the couch—even if I have Dory on a leash.

She says she “loves” Dory and can’t wait to come home the see her, but once there, it’s another story.  I don’t want to be an enabler and give into my daughter’s control issues.

Hannah will only pet Dory if someone is holding her, and she’s even told me Dory needs to go the crate or she won’t come out of her room.

I know she is afraid; I used to be the same way until my parents got me a dog.  Should I make her stay in my bedroom with me with the dog running loose even though I know she will freak out? I feel if I don’t do this then she will never try to do more than she is doing now because of fear, but I don’t want to terrorize her either.  ~ Sarah

I think this is too much, too soon for Hannah. I don’t recommend getting a dog for a child who is afraid of dogs until after we’ve done some significant ground work to help decrease the child’s level of fear. If you haven’t seen a big improvement within a week, I would seriously consider returning the dog and enlisting some professional help to deal with your daughter’s anxiety. There is a possibility that being forced to interact with the dog can make her fears worse, not better.

The biggest challenge is that dog behavior seems unpredictable to frightened children. By asking you to hold Dory, Hannah is really asking you to ensure nothing unpredictable or scary happens.

If you want to make this work, then I think you’ll have to do everything you can to make their interactions calm and controlled (which can be challenging with a puppy!). Give Dory lots of exercise and plenty of tempting things to chew, so that she won’t be too bouncy around Hannah.

Since your son isn’t worried about Dory, have a conversation with both kids in which they say what they like best and least about dogs in general and about Dory in particular. It’s nice for kids to be able to say that they like some things and not others. Add your own thoughts to the list. Maybe hearing from the two of you will help Hannah see some of Dory’s more enticing traits while accepting that “nobody’s perfect,” so it’s perfectly okay to not like every little thing about her.

Encourage your son to do some basic training with Dory using treats to make it fun. (More info and ideas in Puppy Training for Kids.) Have Hannah watch from the couch. Once she sees that there are ways to interact with puppies that encourage calm and appropriate behavior, she may start to warm up a bit.

P.S. Don’t let either of your kids carry the puppy around. It’s tempting to treat a small dog as a toy, but most dogs are very uncomfortable being carried by a child and many learn to wriggle (and sometimes snap) as a way to be put down. That won’t help Hannah at all.

About the Author

Living with kids and dogs is a lot of work! But when things are going well, a dog can be your child's best friend. That experience is a wonderful gift for any child and well worth the effort involved. Got a question? Let's talk!