We were two steps inside the door when the barking started. I could feel my daughter stiffen as her pace slowed and she shifted behind me. The dog owner watched her move and laughed.
"Oh, don't worry about him! He won't hurt a thing. Come on out here and pet him!"
My daughter shook her head and stayed where she was. Normally a polite — and loud — kid, she was completely silent as the dog owner continued to push her to come out and play.
"I'm sorry," I jumped in, "but she's not really comfortable with dogs. She was bitten a few months ago."
The apologies came fast, the dog was ushered out of the room, and my daughter's shoulders slumped back to their normal spot, inches below her ears.
We're getting used to this now. The introduction of a dog. The withdrawal of my kid. The pooh poohing of the owner and thrusting of an animal she doesn't know upon her. The rehashing of my daughter's most traumatic moments while she huddles behind me, reliving the moment when she went from just another kid to a kid who gets daily painful massages of her forehead to help heal the scars plastic surgery have left behind.
When Mom.me writer Kathryn Hively recently shared an open letter to dog owners, asking them to respect kids who have a dog fear, I wanted to send her a hug and a hardy "hear hear."
As a dog owner, I understand the belief that your canine is nothing to be afraid of, but as a mom, I'm growing increasingly tired of having to share my daughter's life story in order for people to understand she's not just being a wuss around their beloved pet. Isn't a child's discomfort sign enough that they're not up for a visit with your pooch?
Dog fears are no laughing matter, nor will they suddenly go away because you've pushed your pooch upon an unsuspecting kid. You may have the sweetest, cutest, most cuddly dog on the planet (although I doubt it, because he lives in my house), but having him thrust into my daughter's lap isn't going to undo the scars — physical or emotional — left by the dog who leapt at her face, jaws bared.
The CDC estimates 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. The people bitten most often are kids between the ages of 5 and 9 years old.
That's a lot of kids, and as Dr. Vanessa LaPointe, a registered psychologist and author of Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, tells SheKnows, adults often make the mistake of pushing kids to "get back on the horse" too soon, expecting children who have been bitten to interact with canines before they're ready.
"Recovering from something like that is a process," says LaPointe, who was bitten by a dog herself as a kid and has treated several children with dog fears in her practice. Instead, she recommends "very low and slow exposure" to dogs.
In other words, not pushing a strange animal at a kid and saying, "Here, pet him; he won't bite."
I get it. Your heart is in the right place. You think you're being kind.
Dog owners who encounter kids who seem afraid have every right to say, "It's OK; my dog's one of the good ones." But rather than insisting a child touch your pet, here's an idea: Ask them instead. If a "do you want to pet him" is met with a violent shaking of the head, back off immediately.
Both the child and their parents will appreciate your kindness.
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