My son, Brayden, has been afraid of dogs for as long as I can remember. Whenever he saw a dog, he would shy away. If a dog barked, he would cover his ears, or run away, or try to climb- literally climb- into my arms. I could see the fear, the anxiety, all over his expression when it happened. I had tried talking to him to calm him down, or reminding him before playdates that his friends’ dogs were kind and safe, but it was hard for him to break down that barrier.
I can’t be sure of where this comes from, exactly, but I can speculate the beginning. Before B was born, I had a dog. She’s a beagle mix that was the runt of her litter, rescued during my time in South Carolina. While this dog loves the majority of adults, she very much dislikes children, especially young children. It could have been that this dog was not around kids enough as a puppy, and that they trigger her anxiety, but no matter the reason she became jealous of my son and tried to bite him when he was a baby. Needless to say, keeping her in the same home was not going to work, and she went to live with my parents. Whenever my son visited them, she would be separated by a gate to ensure his safety.
Perhaps it was this routine of a dog being kept away that made Brayden unsure and afraid. It very well could be that, combined with his sensitivity to sound and the loud barking that most dogs have. No matter the reason, it’s been hard for him to get to know dogs on a personal level, and would more than likely end up in a meltdown.
But not with Freddy.
Freddy is my partner’s dog. He’s a 12 year old Brittany who’s still pretty spritely. When Christa and I became serious and started talking about her meeting Brayden, I knew that it would also mean an eventual introduction between Brayden and Freddy. Of course, this made me nervous, because I knew how he generally reacted to dogs. Still, I held onto hope that maybe we’d find a way for him to work through this fear with a sweet dog.
Before the two of them met, I showed Brayden videos and photographs of Freddy. Brayden would smile and laugh at some of the things that Freddy did, and when I said that he was going to meet this dog, he seemed pretty excited. Of course, there was a layer of nervousness behind his excitement, but he was positive about it overall.
When the day came, Christa and I had everything ready and discussed, to make sure it would all go as smoothly as possible. She knew where B would sit, when we’d bring Freddy to him (after I greeted him and got some of his ya-ya’s out), and how many treats Brayden would have to give to Fred. I was impressed with Christa’s thoughtfulness around the coming situation, knowing that she not only understood that Brayden might have needed time to warm up to Freddy, but that she had a plan to help him do so. The first meeting in any situation is important, even without the added edge of fear.
The moment Freddy saw Brayden his short tail wagged, and he went over to him. Brayden, who was unsure and anxious, threw the handful treats forward so that Freddy would divert his attention away from him. I could see that he was still working through his fear, but he was also eager to try again, and to try to be closer to Freddy. For a little while, Brayden sat in that same chair and watched Freddy from a bit of a distance.
That eagerness to befriend Freddy continued. As the day went on, Brayden not only pet him, but hugged him. He’d still flinch here and there if Fred moved suddenly, but overall I could see the negative feelings fade away.
Since then, their bond has only grown.
I’ve watched with joy and pride as Brayden and Fred have spent time together and gotten closer. The two of them have swam together, camped together, and even danced together during Christa’s weekly dance parties on Instagram. Every so often I’ll still see a hint of Brayden’s caution around Fred, but for the most part I’ve seen more smiles than flinches, and heard laugher instead of gasps or screams.
When Brayden and Freddy first met, I had hoped that such a friendship would happen. Of course I did, because my relationship was quickly growing, and a successful future together meant that everyone would need to get along. This aspect can be tricky with any new relationship, let alone one with children and pets, and children afraid of pets. The relief I felt as I watched Brayden’s comfort around Freddy improve is vast, and continues to be so.
That’s only one piece of the puzzle, though. The other aspect is wanting my son to learn to face his fears, and overcome them. We all have things that we are afraid of, some fears being bigger than others, and learning to cope is important in most cases. Of course, there are things that it makes sense to be afraid of, and continue to be so, but when it comes to travel, or flying, or elevators, or dogs, we can work through them and grow from each experience. It’s an important skill to practice for anyone, and to learn it in childhood will only help him as he gets older.
I can’t point to one exact moment, or one particular decision that helped with letting go of his fear. It may have been the repetitive, positive exposure to this one dog, along with the careful planning. It might be that Brayden and Freddy have a similar energy— excitable, determined, courageous. It might be a bit of both.
Only time will tell if this new confidence with dogs will last outside of our current bubble. After all, we’re still in quarantine, and Brayden hasn’t been around any other dogs since meeting Freddy. I can hope, though, that this experience will help him with other dogs, once the world is safe enough to explore once more. Until then, I’m glad he has this new fur friend, and I look forward to witnessing more of their bond.