Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I have friends and family spread out around the country, and we always seem to have company. We love having guests, but I recently ran into a tough situation. One of my closest friends from high school made plans to come and spend a week with us, along with her husband and two kids. The catch is that her three-year-old is terrified of dogs and we have two labs that we consider members of our family. The dogs are friendly and quite used to being around small children, but that doesn’t do much to ease my friend’s anxiety. I can understand she doesn’t want to spend her entire vacation calming a screaming child, but at the same time, I’m not very enthusiastic about the added expense and disruption of having to board the dogs. What should we do?
A: At first glance, your question seems to be about manners: You and your family are generous enough to open your home to a friend, and in accepting your offer, your guest should be agreeable to the rules and dynamics of your home. But it’s clearly more complicated than that—longstanding friendships have been destroyed over far less.
If, as you say, your dogs truly are members of your family, I’m assuming that if your friend asked you to send one of your two-legged children away for a week while she came for a visit, you’d probably be reluctant to do so. Seems completely appropriate to feel uncomfortable about doing the same with your dogs.
Hopefully, after so many years of friendship, the foundation between the two of you is solid enough to talk openly about the problem. Explain that this is a dilemma for you and that you’ll do everything you can to make her stay comfortable, but you’d rather not carry the extra burden and expense of relocating your dogs for a week. Odds are, this is a problem your friend encounters regularly as she takes her child to play dates, birthday parties, or even just a walk around town.
Fear of animals is quite common among preschool aged children. And as much as a well-intentioned parent or other adult might try and encourage the child to conquer her fears by petting the animal or by explaining simply that “there is nothing to worry about,” some kids will just want to keep a safe distance away from Fido. (Can you really blame them? How would you feel if a big, slobbering creature twice your size ran up and started licking your face?)
Although animal anxiety is a legitimate fear, it’s also treatable—with patience. To start with, there are a lot of books and other resources available to help parents deal with the issue. Most combine a basic understanding of why animals do what they do and how to read signals, with straightforward instructions on how to behave responsibly around animals. One particularly good book on the subject is “Living with Kids and Dogs – Without Losing Your Mind,” by Colleen Pelar,
Another approach is to do some role playing with stuffed animals or read some books about friendly pets and their happy owners. If the problem is severe enough, though, that it affects the family’s ability to function day-to-day, your friend may have to call in the professionals.
Bottom line, you need to explain your feelings to your friend. Be clear that your goal is to enjoy the time with her family, while keeping your own intact. Express sympathy for the issue she’s dealing with, and offer to work together to find a solution. Tests like these often help to make a friendship even stronger.