When I was younger, I was terrified of dogs.
I had not had all that much experience with them really, but my earliest memory is being naturally cautious of dogs everywhere I saw them.
My grandparents had a Jack Russell back when I was young, and I remember it being pretty excitable.
It would bark at everything and sometimes, it seemed to me, for no real reason at all, often in very close proximity to me.
It meant that, for a lot of my childhood, I grew up very wary of barking dogs and recoiled from the sound as a matter of instinct.
Part of the reason the barking took me so by surprise was because I had hearing problems when I was younger, which meant a lot of background noise did not filter through to me.
What this meant was that every time my grandparents’ dog barked, it seemed like an even louder and more abrupt noise than it would normally seem, which has left me with an aversion to loud noises that I’ve still not entirely shaken.
I think my nervousness around dogs when I was younger showed, because often perfectly friendly dogs would be slightly on edge around me at first - I think they could read that I was unsettled and would respond in kind, but when I relaxed, they did too.
I have never blamed anyone for any of what I’ve described - I’ve realised as I got to know more about dogs that it’s all part and parcel of being around them and that it comes with the territory.
However, it didn’t stop me developing a fear of them (and of loud noises) that it took a while to shake, which makes me think about the relationship between small children and dogs.
I look back and wonder whether anything could have been done differently to ensure a more smooth co-existence between that Jack Russell and myself.
What do the experts say?
Canine behaviourist Anna Webb, who spoke to me about the situation I had, said that there is no problem with dogs and young children mixing but that measures need to be taken to ensure that the integration happens in a safe way.
She also spoke about the importance of making sure not only that dogs are trained well enough to be around children, but also that young children know how to behave around dogs to ensure that they don’t scare them or make them nervous - which can lead to more erratic behaviour.
She said: “It’s so important to integrate dogs and children carefully and to set responsible boundaries. This is the job for the adults in the home to do. Dogs and children can and are a child’s best friend, and so many positives come out of these relationships. Examples of course are dogs that help children with autism , the therapy dogs that help boost kids’ confidence to learn to read and so much more.
“But what goes wrong is the communication between humans, whether adult or child, that can get lost in translation. This is when terrible accidents sometimes occur. It is the parents’ job to train the child to understand how to approach dogs, and behave around dogs. And vice versa.
“As for your own experience, an excessively barking dog is a sign of a stressed out dog. My advice would be any dog that just barks all the time needs patience and consistency to build his confidence, understand his place in the home with positive training and using playtime to engage and communicate with your dog. Dogs love to follow instructions and be rewarded for good behaviour.
“As dogs are approaching sentience status, we need to fully appreciate that dogs are members of the family. We expect so much from them, and to do dog’s justice we need to learn to speak dog.
“This way we understand when our dogs are telling us in dog, through body language, that they are overwhelmed, stressed, uncomfortable in a situation. We can then change the context of that situation, make it less stressful for the dog, and that way minimising the chance of any situations occurring through no fault of the dog.”
So what should owners be thinking about?
What it adds up to is that we all need to be careful when young children and dogs are in the same situation to make sure both are approaching it the right way.
Any situation where one or the other feels unsettled is something we all want to avoid, so ensuring your dog is not going to be too much for the child to handle and making sure the dog feels comfortable in the environment should both be key considerations.
I am fortunate that over time I have learned enough about dogs through friends and family having them, as well as living with one for two years, that I have managed to work myself out of being afraid of them and can embrace their good side.
But for long enough I was unsettled by dogs and, I suspect, making them nervous when I was around and that’s something we’d all rather avoid.
So, if you ever find yourself dealing with dogs and young children at the same time, it might be worth having a think about how to manage the two together.
Ensuring the two behave the right way may just save you having to deal with a bigger problem later on!