My five-year-old Jacob is afraid of dogs. It doesn’t matter whether the dog is big or small, loud or quiet, sniffing him or ignoring him, on a leash or off, he’s scared. I don’t really know why. I don’t believe he’s ever had a particularly negative experience with a dog. However, I remember being afraid of dogs myself as a child, even though we had a big German Shepherd cross as a beloved family pet. I wasn’t afraid of my dog, but I was afraid of strange dogs, and so I suspect that maybe some kids are just nervous around dogs. It would make sense for children to be instinctively cautious around animals they don’t know.
The problem that I have is that I live across the street from a park that my kids love. The portion of the park closest to my house is a playground for young children. It’s actually called a ‘tot lot’, reflecting the fact that it caters to little kids. The tot lot is only part of a much larger park, which also features baseball and soccer fields. On summer evenings, lots of people bring their dogs out to play in the fields. Sometimes parents come with kids and dogs, and stand to the side of the playground throwing balls for their dogs while the kids play. There are signs posted around the whole park, including the fields, stating that dogs need to be on leashes, but many people ignore these signs.
Inevitably, off-leash dogs wind up on the playground. When this happens, I’m left in a tough position as my two kids react in diametrically opposed ways. My daughter Hannah loves dogs, and will ask the dog owner if she can say hello. My son Jacob, when he notices the dog, will run shrieking and crying towards me. On the one hand, I don’t want my daughter to also become afraid of dogs. On the other hand, I don’t want to be seen to tacitly approve of off-leash dogs on the playground by standing and smiling while my daughter makes friends with Fido.
The fact is that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the US. The highest rate of dog bites happens in kids ages five to nine – the same age as my son. The CDC has safety tips to prevent dog bites, and number two on the list is ‘Do not run from a dog or scream.’ Basically, they’re saying not to do what my son automatically does. I’m working hard to teach Jacob dog safety, but he’s a little kid. When he’s scared he’s going to act scared. That behaviour can trigger dogs. In the face of that, I’m frankly not willing to trust him around off-leash dogs that my family doesn’t know well.
When I explain my son’s fear to folks with off-leash dogs on the playground, most of them are very understanding and leash their dogs right away. However, I don’t feel it’s fair to put the onus on me to ask, because the truth is that not everyone is understanding. Some people ignore a request to put their dog on a leash. Some people discount my fears, and say that their dogs are very friendly. Some people just take their dogs and leave. A few people react with hostility. For instance, when my daughter recently pointed out to someone that dogs were supposed to be on leashes (because she didn’t want her brother to be scared), the guy told her, “Kids need to be on leashes.” Nice, right? When it’s up to me to ask, I’m forced to risk someone else’s negative reaction.
I know that the local dog owners are aware of the rules, because from time to time a bylaw officer stops by. When they see the officer coming, people leash their dogs in a hurry. Then, about two minutes after the officer leaves, the leashes come off. When that happens, I’m once again put in the position of having to police strangers’ decisions to allow their off-leash dogs onto the playground.
I understand that dogs need to run. I understand that more and more people have dogs in smaller spaces, without adequate space to run and play at home. I wish that my community had more and better off-leash dog parks, to meet the obvious need. In the meantime, though, I’m frustrated that my son can’t play at our local playground much of the time because of off-leash dogs. I’m frustrated that I have to risk being the bad guy with dog owners. And I’m sort of looking forward to the end of summer, so that things get back to normal on the playground.