- Toddler: reading books together and pointing out all the doggies, practicing your own unique barks, and learning how to safely pet a dog is the perfect place to start teaching your toddler about dogs. The next time you are visiting friends with a dog, or walking around the neighborhood, spending five minutes teaching your child that it is up to you as his/her parent when/if your child gets to pet the doggie. First, ask the owner “Is your dog child-friendly? Would it be okay if I pet your dog?” If the owner says “No!” heed the owner’s caution wisely. Wide-berth the dog and carry on. Be aware that toy breeds are most appealing to small children, but also most likely to be fearful and/or jump up and startle your toddler. As much as possible, you want your child’s first introduction to the dog world to be with a larger, gentle dog (e.g. Lab, Newfie, Retriever). When you have the owner’s “OK”, tell your child “Mommy’s going to pet the doggie. Watch what I do.” Keeping a safe distance between your child and the dog, perhaps even holding your child’s hand at your side with your body between your child and the dog. Show your child how you make your other hand into a fist and offer it for the dog to smell. Say to your child “This is how a doggie gets to know us, by taking a sniff.” Little fingers not rolled into a fist make for sausage-like looking treats to most dogs. Once you are confident in the dog’s friendly nature, you can then model for your child how to pet the dog in the middle of it’s back. If your child is curious, have them form their own hand into a fist and allow the dog to smell or lick your toddler’s hand and then pet the doggie gently with your help so their body remembers what gentle touch feels like.
- Preschooler: preschoolers love to squeal, squirm, and jump around like fun prey or playmates for most dogs. Modeling a calm demeanour for your child to emulate around dogs will be important at this stage. Quietly standing tall with hands at your side, for example, will help show your child to adopt the pack leader posture. The next time you encounter a dog you don’t know, spend five minutes practicing how to stand still, look away, and fold your arms across your chest until the dog has passed. Showing your child how to be confident in a potentially threatening situation helps them develop the same confidence. Reassure your child that most dogs, after they have had a sniff, will move on especially when we stay calm.
- Early elementary student: make a doggie playdate with a friend, neighbor, or family member who owns a reasonably well-trained dog. The goal here is for your child to have at least one five-minute opportunity to learn how to give a dog a command and have success being assertive with a dog. “Sit” is a great command to start with, it levels the playing field quickly between an early elementary student’s stature and an average-sized dog. The typical command for “Sit” involves either raising one hand slightly palm-side up or pointing with one finger to the ground. Have the dog’s owner model the command first. Again, ensuring your child uses a lower-pitched voice, stands tall, and doesn’t wiggle around nervously when issuing the command will be important. Each command is meant to be issued once, followed either with a treat or praise, and not to be repeated over and over again without success. If a treat is rewarded, ensure that your child offers it on a flat palm, fingers tight together.
- Upper elementary student or ‘tween: if you’ve been practicing courage workouts with your child and he/she has learned to navigate the neighborhood independently (maybe even with your own family dog), your child is now likely to encounter a dog without you nearby. It could be a dog on a leash, in that case they now know how to ask the owner before approaching or interacting with the dog. If it is an unleashed dog, teach your child not to interact and how to assess the degree of threat. Discuss with your child what threatening gestures from a dog look like: fur up on their backs, exposed snarling teeth, growling, ears forward, head lowered, and tail held stiffly. Review a checklist with your child about how to keep themselves safe around an aggressive dog in your neighborhood. This list could include the following: walk don’t run to the nearest safe house, climb a fence, pick up a stick to distract or keep the dog at a safe distance. Take a five-minute walk through the neighborhood together to assess any hot spots in your ‘hood and practice what to do.
- High schooler or teen: It is rare to get to the teen years without at least one scary run-in with a dog. Take five minutes to review what your teen actually knows about how to deal with dogs. Ask your teen if there have been any dog incidents recently that you don’t know about, and find out what happened and what choices he made. Ask how he knew to do what he did, and spend a few minutes reviewing what some of the other options might have been. Offer kudos for a job well done (after all, his limbs are still intact). Share a scary dog story from your own experience, (or that of someone you know) to highlight what your options were, how you showed courage in the moment, and what you learned about how to deal with dogs. The more opportunities we have to rehearse scenarios, the better prepared we are when the situation bares its teeth at us.
Want more workouts? Here’s our 5-Minute Courage Workout: A Fate Worse Than Death (on public speaking), our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Home Alone, our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Talking Dirty, our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Playing with Fire, 5-Minute Workout on Saying I’m Sorry, or our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Navigating the Neighborhood
We’d love to hear about your results with one of these workouts, or share your own!