Pet Care

Fear of Children

Baby in purple onesie crawls toward hound mix

Some dogs fear children and look frightened or upset whenever they see a child. Signs of fear include a lowered body or hunched back, a tucked or lowered tail, flattened ears, averted eyes, lip licking, whining, panting, trembling and urinating. Fearful dogs might also display signs of defensive aggression, which include growling, barking, showing teeth, lunging, snapping and biting. Some dogs fear children of a specific gender, size, race or age. Others fear all children, regardless of appearance.

Why Do Some Dogs Fear Children?

Inadequate Socialization

Dogs who didn’t get enough exposure to a variety of children as young puppies might have fearful reactions to them as adults.

Genetic Predisposition to Fear Children

Exposing a young puppy to a variety of pleasant experiences with new places, objects, other animals and people, including children, will help him mature into a well-adjusted adult dog. However, some dogs are just born with more timid personalities. These dogs might fear unfamiliar children, loud, boisterous children or large groups of children, even if they’ve had adequate exposure to them during puppyhood.

Traumatic Event Associated with the Presence of Children

If a dog who was previously unafraid of children experiences a traumatic or painful event in the presence of a specific child, he might associate that child or children in general with the unpleasant experience.

No Discernible Cause

A dog who was previously unafraid of children will sometimes develop a fearful response to them for no obvious reason.

Is It Really Fear?

Canine submissive body postures can be mistaken for fear in dogs. For example, if your dog rolls over, lowers his tail and whimpers when interacting with children but makes no attempt to avoid them, he might be displaying normal submissive body language rather than acting fearfully. For more information about interpreting canine communication, please see our article, Canine Body Language.

What to Do If Your Dog Fears Children

Some dogs behave fearfully around children, often because they were not well socialized with children as puppies. Children act very differently than adults do. They have higher pitched voices and often talk in excited, loud tones. They move erratically, and their movements are somewhat unpredictable. They sometimes touch dogs in unpleasant ways, pulling tails and ears, pinching skin or grabbing fur. They are also much smaller, putting them at face-level with most dogs. These differences can be quite disconcerting for dogs who are not accustomed to children.

Dogs respond to fear and stress in different ways. A dog might react to something or someone scary by attempting to run away or avoid the frightening thing or person. Others respond with defensive aggression, which might include behaviors like barking, lunging, growling, showing teeth, snapping or biting. These are both typical responses for animals presented with situations that they find threatening. Frightened animals will either try to escape threats (by fleeing) or try to remove them (by fighting). Either strategy can be problematic when a dog encounters children.

Key Points for Dealing with Your Dog’s Fearful Behavior

Keep in mind that fear can trigger aggression. Even if your dog has never displayed aggression in the past, please be aware that any dog can resort to aggressive behavior if he or she feels extremely threatened or afraid. A dog who first tries to deal with his fear by running away but finds that strategy doesn’t work might then switch to defensive aggression. This is especially likely if people try to approach or touch the dog while he’s frightened. If your dog has a fear-related behavior problem, it’s crucial to make sure that you don’t place people—especially children—at risk by putting your dog in situations that might provoke aggressive behavior.

Pet parents often mistake fear-related problems for stubbornness. If you ask your dog to perform a behavior that will increase his fear, he might refuse to obey. For instance, if you call your dog to come to you, but you’re standing close to a child he fears, he might not respond to your command. Keep in mind, that if this happens, your dog isn’t disobedient or stubborn. He’s afraid. His anxiety and fear might make it impossible for him to do whatever you’ve asked him to do. So instead of getting frustrated, try to focus on helping your dog overcome his fear. Read on to find out how.

DO NOT USE PUNISHMENT when trying to change your fearful dog’s behavior. When something frightens your dog, he experiences a great deal of stress. Any kind of verbal or physical punishment will merely distress him even more, making him more defensive and fearful in the future.

Avoid using rewards to lure your dog closer to children he fears. Doing so could actually intensify your dog’s fear. It might also provoke defensive aggression. Sometimes a dog will follow a food lure and move closer to something or someone he fears because he wants the food, but then he’ll snatch the morsel and bite a nearby person before running away.

If your dog displays fearful behavior, aggressive behavior or both when he’s afraid, you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Always carefully manage your dog’s behavior to avoid or minimize problems and ensure that no one gets hurt.
  2. Contact a professional to help you change your dog’s behavior.

Managing Your Dog’s Behavior

Because frightened animals often resort to aggression in their attempts to defend themselves from perceived threats, it’s crucial to use management techniques, which focus on avoiding or minimizing the problem situation, to protect other people, your dog and yourself. Even if your dog doesn’t behave aggressively around children who frighten him, triggering his fear can make it worse.

If your dog fears children, it’s best to avoid them. However, you might not be able to avoid children at all times. For example, if you have young children in your extended family, they might visit your home with their parents. Avoiding children might also be challenging if you live close to an elementary school or in an apartment building with other people who have kids.

To prevent aggression and avoid increasing your dog’s fear, follow these important guidelines when you know he might see children, either out in the world or at home:

  • Always keep your dog under control. If you’re out in the world, keep him on a leash. If you know children will be visiting your home, confine your dog beforehand in a crate, in a secure room or behind a baby gate. Be sure to provide something fun for your dog to do while he’s alone. Give him a special treat, like a chew bone or a food-stuffed KONG® toy. (Please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG Toy, for more information about food puzzle toys.) If your dog has a way to occupy himself, he’ll probably feel less stressed and nervous.
  • Keep your dog as far away as possible from children, especially when your dog shows fearful body language. Because he’s afraid, your dog might growl, bark or even bite children who get too close to him or attempt to touch him. If children try to approach your dog, tell them to please stay away.
  • If other people try to approach your dog when he’s frightened or nervous, tell them to please stay away. Handling or attention from people—especially strangers—might increase your dog’s fear and provoke defensive aggression. You can politely explain that because your dog isn’t feeling comfortable, he doesn’t want to visit.
  • Keep your movements slow and your voice calm. If you seem anxious or upset, your dog might become even more afraid.
  • If you unexpectedly encounter a child who frightens your dog, focus on calmly and quickly removing your dog from the situation. (See The u-turn, below, for advice about how to do this.)
  • Consider muzzle training. Teaching your dog to wear a muzzle before he encounters children can keep everyone safe. Please read our article, Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle, to learn how to teach your dog to comfortably wear a muzzle.

The U-Turn

Because you might unexpectedly encounter a child who frightens your dog when the two of you are out and about, it can help to teach him an easy u-turn. Sometimes dogs can freeze up or lunge and bark when frightened. This easy u-turn will enable you and your dog to quickly and calmly “get out of Dodge” without worsening your dog’s stress by forcing or dragging him with the leash.

You’ll need to practice first in a relaxing, familiar place. Then you can try the u-turn when you’re taking walks outside with your dog. Eventually, you’ll be able to use the u-turn to quickly lead your dog away when you run into a child who frightens him.

  1. Put a leash on your dog and take him to a quiet, familiar place. A room in your house will work best.
  2. Start walking with your dog in a straight line.
  3. After three or four steps, say “U-turn,” in an upbeat voice. Then reach down and put a tasty treat right in front of your dog’s nose. Turn around and go in the opposite direction, using the treat like a magnet in front of your dog’s nose to lead him along with you. Make sure you don’t jerk or pull your dog with his leash. You should be able to guide his movement as he follows the tasty treat with his nose. If your dog doesn’t sniff and nibble at the treat, find something more exciting and delicious that he loves. Try bits of hot dog, cheese or chicken.
  4. After you and your dog have made the u-turn and walked a couple of steps, you can let him eat the treat.
  5. Practice the sequence above until your dog quickly whips around to walk in the opposite direction as soon as he hears you say the cue “U-turn.” Eventually, you won’t have to use the treat on his nose anymore to lead him, but do continue to give him a treat after the two of you have changed directions and walked a few steps.
  6. When your dog becomes a u-turn pro in your quiet training place, start trying the behavior when the two of you take walks together. Since exciting sights and smells outside will distract your dog, you’ll probably need to use a treat on his nose again. Once he gets used to performing his new trick outdoors, you can stop using the treat to guide him. After you’ve both turned, remember to get out a treat to reward your dog for doing such a good job.

Once your dog has learned the u-turn behavior, you can start incorporating familiar people, like family members or friends whom your dog knows and likes, into your training. Start practicing with the familiar person about 15 feet away. As your dog gets better at the u-turn, you can gradually move closer and closer to the familiar person before turning around to go in the opposite direction. Be sure to practice in many different places. (However, be sure to avoid training in locations where your dog is likely to encounter children.)

After you teach and practice the u-turn for a few weeks, you can try using it if you and your dog suddenly encounter a child who scares him. Be sure to keep some tasty treats in your pocket whenever you and your dog go out into the world. When you use the u-turn in a real-life situation to guide your dog away from a child, remember to stay calm and to keep your voice upbeat—even if your dog barks, lunges or growls. The first few times you use the u-turn when you unexpectedly encounter a child who scares your dog, you might have to go back to using a treat on your dog’s nose to lead him away. If you say “U-turn,” and your dog doesn’t turn toward you immediately, just repeat “U-turn” in a happy voice and get out a big treat to put on his nose. When he’s turned around with you and you’re able to give him the treat, tell him how brave and smart he is and how happy you are that he came with you.

You can use the u-turn as a management tool to help you deal as efficiently as possible with unexpected emergency situations. For instance, if you and your dog turn a corner when taking a walk and accidentally run into a child, you can use the u-turn to help your dog quickly move away from that child. DO NOT seek out children who scare your dog in order to practice the u-turn. Only practice the behavior with adults whom your dog knows and likes.

Treatment for Fear of Children

Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DSCC)

Desensitization with counterconditioning is a treatment procedure that can help reduce or eliminate a dog’s fear of children. This method focuses on changing a dog’s perception of children from frightening to pleasant by very gradually exposing him to children while teaching him that very good things—rather than scary or painful things—always happen around children. The good things can include highly desirable food and treats, like chicken or cheese, favorite toys, a favorite game, attention, petting or anything else the dog absolutely loves. During desensitization and counterconditioning, the dog also learns that the good things he loves stop or don’t happen when children are not present. The message to the dog is that very special, wonderful things happen to him only when children appear. Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for a thorough explanation of the purpose and effective use of this procedure.

Finding Help

Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate an expert in your area, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear and aggression, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.

Treating a dog who’s afraid of children can also prove challenging because it’s necessary to expose the dog to children in order to decrease his fear of them. This can be very risky. You will only be able to recruit the assistance of children if you have taken all necessary precautions to ensure that no one will be frightened or injured.

A qualified professional can help you design and safely carry out a treatment plan to change or manage your dog’s behavior. If your dog displays fearful behavior, aggressive behavior or both when around children, please seek consultation with a qualified professional, such as CAAB or a Dip ACVB. We do not recommend that you attempt to resolve your dog’s fear-related problem without the guidance of one of these animal behavior experts.

Medications

Always consult with a veterinarian before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.

In conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning, medication might help reduce your dog’s fear and stress. There are many different anti-anxiety medications available for dogs with fear-related behavior problems. If you’d like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.

General Precautions

To avoid intensifying your dog’s anxiety and increasing his fearful behavior around children, do your best to keep him away from them. It’s fine for your dog to see children during structured treatment sessions because you’ll be prepared with treats and a plan to help him get over his fear while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. However, if you and your dog encounter a child who scares him outside of the controlled treatment context, both of you might be taken by surprise. You might not be prepared to counteract your dog’s fear, and as a result, his fear and anxiety could intensify severely. So be sure to take measures to prevent accidental exposure to children. For instance, if your dog is afraid of your neighbor’s little boy, you must keep him away from that child at all times unless you’re having a prearranged treatment session. If your dog is afraid of all children, you’ll need to take special precautions when you leave your home. For example, when taking walks with your dog, immediately cross the street or turn and walk in a different direction if you see a child headed your way. Consider muzzling your dog, especially if he’s large, before going out on walks if you think he could hurt a child. Again, always take delicious treats with you when you and your dog go out to do u-turns, to reward him for appropriate behavior, or to distract him if needed. That way, you’ll be able to deal safely and efficiently with any unexpected situations.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not force your dog to confront his fear by making him look at, approach or interact with children. This practice might actually increase your dog’s fear and worsen his behavior.
  • Do not try to lure your dog closer to children. Doing this can intensify your dog’s fear and might provoke aggressive behavior.
  • Do not scold or physically punish your dog for being afraid of children, even if his fearful response includes barking, growling or displaying other aggressive behavior. Punishing your dog by yelling or physically “correcting” him will merely intensify his fear and distress—and it will probably worsen his aggressive behavior as well.
  • Do not constantly reassure your dog. You do want him to look to you for safety and security, but it’s not helpful to repeatedly pick him up or chant, “It’s okay, it’s okay....” Your dog won’t understand what you’re saying, and if you sound anxious, you might make him even more upset. Instead, you can calmly praise and reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior if he offers it on his own.