You always envisioned family life to include a dog, but your child is afraid of them. Don’t worry — being scared of dogs, technically called cynophobia, is a common fear among children and one they can overcome. But how do you help your kid get over the fear and see dogs as the friendly, lovable creatures they are?
Why Some Kids Are Scared of Dogs
It helps if you understand why your child is afraid of dogs — you might unwittingly be the cause. “Fear is often passed down from parent to child,” says Dr. Samantha Rodman, a licensed psychologist in Maryland. And that’s exactly what happened to Tracy Petersen, a Georgia mom. Tracy has a lifelong fear of dogs that didn’t upset her two boys, but did affect her daughter Callie.
“I was transferring my fear to her,” says Tracy who became concerned when Callie wouldn’t go outside whenever the neighbor’s dog was out (never mind that this dog was so old he could barely move).
If you aren’t afraid of dogs, your child could be because of a bad experience he had. “A sensitive child might be upset hearing a barking dog or experiencing a dog jump on him, even if the dog is being friendly,” says Dr. Rodman. Children then tend to generalize this fear to all dogs.
Techniques to Help Your Child Overcome the Fear
If your goal is to help your child overcome her cynophobia, you can take specific steps to make it happen.
- Use a Stuffed Dog
Dr. Rodman shows a child with a fear of dogs a stuffed dog and asks the child to rate his fear from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst. She then lets the child play with the stuffed dog until the child’s anxiety subsides by half.
- Watch a Video of a Dog
Even watching a dog on TV can cause anxiety in fearful children. This step is a progression to get a fearful child to eventually be comfortable around dogs. “We start with situations that are easier for the client and move to ones that are more difficult,” says Dr. Rodman. This is called “graduated exposure.”
- Watch a Dog from Across the Street
The child might now become super anxious. “I stay with the child until she calms down,” says Dr. Rodman. She explains that the key is to let the child go through the anxiety until it subsides. “What people often do is to leave the situation as soon as the anxiety begins, thinking that the anxiety will keep getting worse,” she says. But that isn’t what happens. Anxiety peaks and then subsides. “People who leave at the peak don’t experience having the anxiety subside, which is required for overcoming the phobia.”
- Be in the Same Room With a Dog
This is called flooding, explains Dr. Rodman. “Your child might scream and cry to get away from the dog,” she says. If that happens, you should remain calm and stay with your child and the dog. After some time, maybe 10 minutes or so (which can seem like an eternity with a frightened child), your child should calm down. Don’t show any fear yourself during this time.
- Get a Dog
That’s what the Petersen family did. Although Tracy is afraid of dogs, she got a black lab, Buster, which her boys trained. “They taught Buster to sit and stay,” says Tracy. She remembers how four-year-old Callie would watch her brothers play with Buster, and Callie learned that was okay.
- Overcome the Fear
“Any child can get over a fear of dogs,” says Dr. Rodman. It’s up to you to help your child succeed. If you reinforce the fear, your child might never get over it. Even if you have a fear of dogs, as long as you can keep that fear in check, your child should be able to get over the fear.
A dog can be a great addition to a family and a best friend for a child. Dr. Rodman notes, “Sensitive children tend to be the ones most scared of dogs, and they are the very children who can have the most love and appreciation for a dog.”
Laura Agadoni is a pet writer and pet owner whose articles appear in various publications, such as The Daily Puppy, Pets on Mom.me, The Nest, Tom’s of Maine, The Penny Hoarder and Trulia.