I have a five-year-old son. Quite often when we're walking in the countryside a puppy of a big breed will come running up to him and try to jump up and often end up knocking him over and/or scratching him. This is making him nervous around dogs.

We tell him things like not to wave his arms around or carry sticks but he just generally acts like a five-year-old, running and laughing and squealing. While I can tell he's frightened to a puppy it probably looks like he's having fun. The puppy usually responds well and quickly to an adult (like me) telling them to stop and go back to their owners. But often only after my son's got upset. He very often ends up in tears and scratched and it's the one thing he remembers of the day.

The owners generally stand at some distance uselessly calling and don't really acknowledge any of the family in any way. I think it's generally accepted that this is just a hazard of the countryside where we live (in a very rural location) and that this will just happen.

I don't want to stop taking him out for country walks, but I don't want him to end up with a phobia. He's generally very kind, gentle, and calm around animals, and knows a lot about things like not getting too close, or coming between a cow and a calf, etc. Working dogs are usually very good, and I don't worry about farm dogs, gamekeeper's dogs, etc. He has relations who have dogs and he gets on well with them. It's only really "family" puppies which cause trouble. But it really distresses him, and I get frustrated at the lack of any reaction at all (like an apology or concern) from the dogs' owners (which would help him, at least, understand the interaction), but the most you usually get is either something like "He's only a puppy" or "Your son had a ball in his hand".

What's the right way forward getting him in the outdoors, or should we feeble town folk stick to the high streets?

First example:

Most recently a "teenage" spaniel comes bounding over half a field from behind and jumps on my kid who was a few yards in front of me pushing autumn leaves with a stick. He jumped up and knocked him over, and was pawing to play but scratched him on the tummy in a few seconds.

Only then really being aware of the situation, I went over to the dog said "No" sternly and "Go", and pointed to his owners (still half a field away and stationary) who were whistling ineffectually and he went charging off and the family disappeared into the woods. He was in tears of course. Some negative dog interaction happens, say, once a month. In retrospect, I can see why what my son was doing might have interested the dog, but I can't bring myself to say he shouldn't do this stuff just because a dog might appear from nowhere.

Second example:

An example of things happening quickly. I was in a city walking across a green open space in the dark with him, no lights (broken city lights), he had a torch. He was holding my hand. A small dog came up out of the dark, jumped on him; he pulled out of my hand and ran off screaming. The dog thought this great fun. I ran after him because he was running into the darkness. The owner who eventually arrived told me off because screaming encouraged the dog. Other than being out in the dark (not late, we live at high lat.), I don't see what we were doing wrong, but I want to avoid it. I tried to tell him not to scream when pounced on by a dog in the night but it didn't really make sense even as I said it.

  • Big dogs that are not properly trained are a problem. Their owners "should" know better. When a dog is well trained, even a young child can use a firm voice and standard hand signals to let the dog know appropriate boundaries.
    – pojo-guy
    Sep 30, 2018 at 18:49
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    @pojo-guy - Well-trained dogs don't necessarily follow a strange person's commands, let alone approach strangers without permission. There are dogs that are strictly one-person dogs, and that's ok. No child should be in a position of having to control someone else's dog. Sep 30, 2018 at 20:17
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    Where do you live? Where I live, I would expect dogs to be on a leash wherever they might encounter children. It shouldn't be the task of the child to control the dogs, its the owners responsibility to make sure the dog doesn't harm (even emotionally) other people.
    – Polygnome
    Sep 30, 2018 at 22:19
  • @anongoodnurse I agree fully with your opinion of what should be, but recognize that should and is are not the same thing. Untrained and unsupervised dogs are a hazard to young children.
    – pojo-guy
    Sep 30, 2018 at 22:41
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    @pojo-guy - I'm not sure we're disagreeing. My point is that no dog, trained or untrained, should be allowed to roam freely where there are other people, especially children. In my county, a dog must be under an owner's control at all times. A "verbal leash" is acceptable if the dog is under the owner's control. Roaming freely is not considered under control. Sep 30, 2018 at 23:05

4 Answers 4


If you want your son to become more confident around dogs, get a dog or keep visiting the owners of dogs you like and who are good to him. Do not trust a strange dog to be gentle with your child. There is no reason to put your child at risk, and there is always a risk. Even the goofiest Golden Retriever who never bit a soul should not be on the loose near children or adults.

I think I'm in a reasonable position to speak, as I own two dogs (three until recently when one died), and as an ER physician, I routinely took care of people who were bitten. I always inquired about the circumstances of the bite, not only from curiosity but because of responsibility to report (unknown dogs might not be up to date on rabies vaccine, etc.) and aftercare instructions.

As a dog owner, I am responsible for everything my dogs do, including running up to people. For that reason, my dogs had a rock-solid recall and down command. If kids were getting out of school and cutting across the field where I was working my dogs, or adults walking their dogs entered the area, my dogs were told to either return or to get down and stay down until I collected them. They were not afraid of people and never bit anyone, but kids can be rough with dogs or might surprise them, and other dogs might be aggressive, so better to avoid it until I could be near my dog to monitor the interactions.

What you do depends on much confrontation you are comfortable with, and what you want to teach your child in dealing with strange dogs and strange, thoughtless adults.

What I do not recommend is teaching your child not to be afraid of strange dogs, that they will not hurt him. While this is often the case, I've had to call in a plastic surgeon to fix deep/large facial lacerations in kids (they are so level with dog's mouths!) too many times to count.

The most gentle and non-confrontational approach is to just pick up your child when you see an off-leash dog. Caution isn't the same as a phobia; it's smart and appropriate. Then see what the dog does when it approaches and act accordingly.

Taking it up a notch, you can carry a little spray bottle of a mix of water, alcohol, and peppermint essential oil in your (bag/whatever.) When you see an off-leash dog, get the bottle out and give it a good shake. As soon as the dog is in range, start spraying. The solution is irritating but not harmful to dogs, and it should stop their approach (if they don't sneeze/whimper and back off, decrease the water content.) When the now newly concerned owner approaches, you can play the victim ("I'm afraid of dogs, sorry!") or (my choice) tell the truth (I don't know your dog, and I don't allow strange dogs to approach my child or me.") If they are indignant, calmly remind them about your local dog laws.

To kick it up a notch, carry two sticks, one to throw for the dog as it approaches (using an excited "Go get it!" command), and the other to whack him across the head if it is stupid/aggressive enough to keep coming towards you/your child. You'll not be teaching your child to be cruel to animals; on the contrary, you'll be modeling how to protect yourself. (If you club innocent/well behaved animals, that's cruelty.)

It all depends what you want to model for your child. Other people, you can't control.

If one of my dogs approached a stranger without permission, and that stranger kicked my dog in the head, I would apologize profusely to the person who had to do that, even though my dogs are very very precious to me.

  • If a dog comes and annoys you after you pick up your child, would you growl at it (instead of or before you kick it)?
    – ChrisW
    Sep 30, 2018 at 20:45
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    @ChrisW - Absolutely not. Growling at a dog is an invitation to a fight. And my teeth are nowhere near as long or as sharp as theirs are. I might yell at it ("Down! Off!" or whatever), but growl? Not a chance! Sep 30, 2018 at 21:14
  • I think a growl-like-you-mean-it in that context says, "I'm protective, this isn't a game, don't make me hurt you" but maybe yelling works too. Anyway, try some kind of vocalisation before violence, I would.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 30, 2018 at 21:39
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    @anongoodnurse I do like your recommendations. I'm not really saying I do what's best to do, just reporting what seems to work so far done out of making it up as I go along (because it's not ideal, is why I'm asking: for answers like yours). After I realise what's happening I'm certainly prepared to escalate beyond words, etc, but (so far) is usually it's quickly over at that point, I suppose because they're puppies from a family: the damage is done before I realise what's up, which would be the same with sticks, sprays or words. I'm trying to think of a way of prevention.
    – user32571
    Oct 1, 2018 at 0:03
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    @Dannie - Understood (more than you know, honestly!) My newest pup is reactive to strange dogs, and a Houdini dog as well. I really have to watch him every second he's outside in my fenced yard (no fields for him!) I know exactly how quickly a situation can go from "everything's fine" to "s*** hits fan!" He's never, ever outside without at least one leash, and usually two. I love him dearly, but do not trust him at all yet. We are working on it every day, and he's a lot better than he was, but it will be years before I trust him. Oct 1, 2018 at 1:01

It's not clear where you're located, but even in a semi-rural area, it's inappropriate to have a dog off leash. For the safety of others, as well as the dog. If you're living in an area where it's acceptable to have dogs running free, my answer does not apply.

At 5 years old I would not expect my son to be able to handle a large dog coming at him, regardless of advice I give him. If I was alone and a dog came running, it wouldn't be a big deal. I feel comfortable with my knowledge of breed personalities and my assessment of animals' intent, I would probably assume they're friendly and want to play. I love dogs, even misbehaving ones.

But with my kids I am taking zero chances. Our job is to protect them. I would directly intervene as forcefully as I thought necessary to prevent a dog from getting to my kid.

  • If it's a small dog, I pick my son up.
  • If it's a big dog, I get between it and my son, and grab it's collar to restrain it.

I would much rather deal with the dog getting hurt than my son's torn up arm or mauled face. It's not the dog's fault that he's not well trained, but I'm not going to risk my kid get hurt either.

You describe the dog attacks as sudden and unexpected, implied that you don't have enough time to react. Without getting into another topic, one thing that helps reaction time is being mentally and physically prepared to act. Planning ahead for what you would do in the situation will improve your reaction time.

  • +1, because this is a good answer, and I agree with everything you've said with one exception: grab the dog's collar. I wish it were that easy, I really do. I have an "energetic" pup who has the run of a large fenced yard with a collar, a harness, and a leash I can step on. The collar is useless to restrain him if he's overexcited. :) But, good answer. Oct 1, 2018 at 15:18

Can you carry a stick and stay close to him? A golf club is also an option as it is light and yet the club head is effective.

I would ask the owners to please control their dog(s).

I personally would never beat a puppy. Easy enough just to grab them by the collar and pull them off and slam them on their back. It shocks them enough to back off. But I am strong man with MMA training and a lot of dog experience. Hand fighting a dog is not much different than a human if you know the moves they use. I have broken up 3 dog fights and 1 attack on human with my bare hands. If they might come back then as soon as they are on their back slide your other arm between the front legs and grab them by the throat or collar. If they squirm take what is called full guard (you are going to get scratched).

  • These are interesting ideas but the dogs usually come bounding up unexpectedly from behind, the owners a few hundred yards away. Usually I have no trouble telling the dog off but sometimes when you're just wandering it all happens quite fast. I guess I should go over and discuss things with them but I'm risk averse and it seems like I'd need to re-educate the whole dog-owning community of my region until it had practical effect!
    – user32571
    Sep 30, 2018 at 17:21
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    "Can you carry a stick and stay close to him? A golf club is also an option as it is light and yet the club head is effective." What is the OP supposed to do with the stick / golf club - beat a puppy? Sep 30, 2018 at 17:22
  • Maybe I need to try to teach my son to be more confident with strange dogs, somehow? I mean there's usually the goose thing that if you act confident then they usually pay attention. Problem is, as a five year old, there's a certain physical barrier to that.
    – user32571
    Sep 30, 2018 at 17:26
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    @AnneDaunted - "What is the OP supposed to do with the stick / golf club - beat a puppy?" If need be, yes. Don't get me wrong, I love dogs. But dog owners need to learn what is permissible and what is not permissible. Sep 30, 2018 at 20:21
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    @paparazzo - I once treated/referred to a tertiary care center a 5yo girl who had been attacked by a dog. It only took two bites (identifiable by the pattern of lacerations/puncture marks) to completely tear off one of her lower eyelids and part of her upper lip, and to fracture both her zygomatic arches. Exactly how long would you let it hurt the child? It took seconds for this dog to ruin the appearance of a little girl's face. I'd rather be proactive than reactive. Sep 30, 2018 at 21:23

Learn how to do it yourself, then show him.

Your problem isn't that he doesn't know how to behave around dogs, it's that you don't. He can't learn from someone who doesn't know themselves.

If you've let the dog run up to him and bounce at him, you've already screwed up. The countryside will contain things which present a hazard to your child - nettles, thistles, slippery rocks, dogs, etc.. You make sure your child learns how to deal with them, but you make sure you've got their back until they've got it sorted. If you're letting your child get hurt or scared by dogs, then you need to start keeping your child safe. The first step is by putting yourself between the dog and the child. Always.

When you and/or the owner have the dog firmly under control, you can get him used to how to play with the dog. Perhaps he gives the dog treats, or throws a stick, or something. As he learns how dogs behave, he can get less scared. He can also start to learn that some dogs are scared of him and might not want to say hello; or some dogs are just too bouncy to say hello safely; or some big dogs are friendly but might just lean without realising, which most kids think is really funny when a Labrador accidentally sits on them. All under your close supervision, for his safety.

My son is 8 and small for his age. I love dogs, I've got a small terrier, and my ex (who he lives with) has two spaniels. He's never known life without a dog in the house, and he learnt very early about playing nicely with dogs. But as soon as he was old enough, he learnt to always ask the owner if a dog is OK to say hello to. And if the dog looks very lively, I'll always be next to him to grab it if I have to.

  • Please read Stack Exchange's be nice policy. You might consider editing your answer accordingly. Your answer makes good points, but I believe they are somewhat obscured by your tone. Sep 30, 2018 at 23:19
  • @anongoodnurse Minor edits made. No more edits possible without losing the primary point, which is that parents need to take responsibility for keeping their kids safe. And keeping kids safe is more important than being nice.
    – Graham
    Sep 30, 2018 at 23:44
  • Why can't people understand how quickly a dog can come bounding over a field from behind? By the time I realise there's a dog and it's heading in the direction of my kid it's too late. Of course I call him to me and get between him and the dog when wee see a dog is coming. I wish I never asked the question now but it won't let me delete it. I'm trying to keep my child safe, that's always what I do.
    – user32571
    Oct 1, 2018 at 0:12
  • This is really upsetting. I'm not "letting my child get hurt", I'm trying really hard to stop him getting hurt. I'm asking for advice, I'm trying out different things.
    – user32571
    Oct 1, 2018 at 0:14
  • @Dannie - I suggest you down vote if this answer is upsetting enough to you. StackExchange has all kinds of people answering questions; the answers can be helpful or unhelpful, but they aren't meant to personally attack you (hence my request to tone it down.) If they are not helpful, that is a good reason to DV. Oct 1, 2018 at 0:53

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