Q. My sister has a dog that my 3-year-old son is terrified of. She won't keep the dog out of the way when we visit and thinks this approach -- to avoid dogs -- is coddling my son. I feel it's none of her business, and in any event, having her dog (granted, he's a small dog) jump all over him is not going to help. Am I right to avoid her house?
A. Actually, you're both barking up the wrong tree. So you first: Not wanting to fuel your son's fears is as natural as a dog baying at the moon, but not dealing with them is truly doing him a disservice. Let your son's fear run wild in his imagination, and you risk breeding a full-fledged phobia later on. Of course, letting your child be mauled by a dog that is already scaring the bejesus out of him isn't the answer, either....
Instead of sparring with sis, enlist her and Rover to help. The dog will need to be confined -- either in a crate or on a leash -- but only long enough for child and beast to relax in each other's presence. (Many dogs are hyper when someone first enters a home and calm down considerably as they realize that the visitor is a friend and the turf remains safe.) As your son's initial anxiety starts to abate, gently bring him over to the dog. Let him put his hand out to be sniffed -- and hopefully licked. Don't force the issue; this may be all he can handle at first. With each subsequent visit, add a little more interactivity -- maybe have your son hold the leash with a grown-up, put out the dog's food, or play a round of fetch. Before long, he may be begging for a dog of his own!
Kathy Bishop and Julia Whitehead are the authors of The City Parent Handbook: The Complete Guide to the Ups and Downs and Ins and Outs of Raising Young Kids in the City (Rodale).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2006.