Here's a question from reader Dawn:
"I recently acquired a golden retriever puppy. She is wonderful and in nearly one week is potty trained and sits. The problem is my twin girls that are almost four. They are terrified of her. One of them is getting better but not the other one. I am in need of advice. I just never expected this. I am a huge dog lover and would like to make this work out. Any suggestions?"
Okay, this is me trying not to preach, but preach I must just a little bit. Not necessarily because of what Dawn wrote about her situation but more because I don't know the entire history so I'm going to cover all the bases.
I cannot stress enough, first and foremost, that if you're going to get a dog, especially a puppy, you must make sure your kids are as ready for a dog as you are. At the age that Dawn's daughters are their attitudes - about anything from puppies to popsicle flavors - can change in a millisecond. Putting myself in Dawn's shoes (because, again, I don't know the whole story) perhaps they were fine with a friend's or relatives' dogs, maybe even puppies that they had encountered away from their home. The twins might have seemed ready for their own dog on the surface, but a puppy in your own home is a whole new ballgame. And that ballgame comes with crazy energy and really bad manners.
Puppies can come on a bit strong under the best of circumstances, but to a little kid a jumpy puppy can be really intimidating. To a pre-schooler they can be downright terrifying. This - introducing children to dogs - is a delicate situation that needs to be handled with care. As a parent, the last thing you want is a child (or two) who grow up with a fear of dogs and as a dog owner you don't want to have to give up the dog. So follow your child's lead, if they don't want direct contact with the dog don't force them. Rome was not built in a day and your son or daughter will not learn to love dogs overnight.
I'm thrilled to hear that Dawn is currently working with her dog on basic commands and progress is good. The better trained the dog is the easier it will be to get the girls to accept her. Until then all contact between puppy and kids should be closely supervised by an adult who will be able to step in to correct not just the puppy's behavior but also the girls' behavior. When kids are intimidated by a dog they will either run away - oftentimes screaming - or lash out. All interested parties should be protected from each other and that means that pup should be crated unless an adult is there.
(These recommendations are mainly for a puppy or younger dog that is already in the home and, therefore, the family has more time to work on this. Getting a child used to a friend's or a family member's dog is a little bit different.)
I find that it's easier to introduce a puppy to a child when the pup is on leash; with the responsible adult controlling the dog's jumping or lunging. So puppy should be on leash whenever she is out of her crate. The children should be encouraged to pat the dog under the chin or on the back (never on top of the head. never ever ever on top of the head.) but only when they are ready. Don't force it. Just let the dog and the kids sit close together (kids on couch, dog on floor to start) without touching for awhile until they are all comfortable and calm.
When the dog is sleeping in her crate, try reading books about dogs to your kids. Talk about your puppy with them, remind them of all the great things a puppy can do, and demonstrate with a stuffed dog the correct ways to interact with your pup. It's easier to teach kids with a fake dog than it is to throw them in with an excitable puppy.
When your child is feeling more secure encourage them to join you in rolling a ball to the dog or help them place a cookie down in front of the dog. At the age of three-almost-four Dawn's girls can also set down the dog's food dish (with mom keeping the dog under control on-leash) or give a simple command - like sit. These will help your kids gain a sense of control and responsibility for the dog.
The key to all of this interaction is control (have I said that word enough yet?); the puppy, as well as the kids, should be under control as much as possible . No mean feat, right? If you have kids and/or dogs you know that keeping them all calm takes a lot of patience on your part. And here's where you come in parents - if you're calm and secure your kids will feel more secure. If you're pushing at the dog yelling "Off! Stop jumping! Stop it!" your kids are going to be a little freaked out. Take a deep breath and remember that you kids learn by example and that your dog, if you train him or her, will not always be this crazy.
There's more to it, of course, but this is a blog so I'm keeping it all as brief as possible. I've given you the basics, now I encourage any of you with kids who might be afraid of dogs to do more reading on this subject. For more information on dogs and kids try the book "Dogs and Children" by Barbara Sykes and "Childproofing Your Dog" by Brian Kilcommons.