Helping Your Child Overcome a Fear of Dogs
10 top tips from the experts in dog (and people) behavior.
10 Ways to Help Your Child Overcome a Fear of Dogs (and 1 Tip to Avoid)
First, understand your child's fear. Spiders, snakes, public
speaking -- most of us are a little unnerved by something. And although our
logic tells us a tiny bug or a short speech won't actually hurt us "fear isn't
rational, says Colleen Pelar, CPDT, CDBC, a certified dog behavior consultant
and pet dog trainer, "so rational talk isn't going to help you through your
fear." That means the first step to helping your child overcome fear of dogs is
to recognize and accept that that fear is there.
Then, watch what you say. Be sure you're not unintentionally
creating -- or reinforcing -- a child's fear of dogs with the words you choose.
"I've heard people say well-intentioned but awful things to their kids," Pelar
says. "Things like, 'Pet that dog under his chin, or else he might bite you,'
or a parent will tell their child to ask a stranger 'Does your dog bite?'"
Words have great power to inform a child's view of dogs as dangerous, or as new
friends to meet, so choose your words carefully.
Take puppy steps. There's no reason to rush your child into
face-to-face doggy introductions. You don't need to force them to be around
dogs right away, Dennis tells WebMD. "That may backfire and just
increase your child's fear." Instead, gradually introduce your child
to dogs, starting with picture books, TV, movies, then from a distance, perhaps
in a park or sitting outside a pet supply store. "Gradually increase the
intensity of the exposure," Dennis says, "but be sensitive to whether any one
step is too much for your child. If it is, go back to the previous step."
Pelar, author of Living with Kids and Dogs...Without Losing Your Mind,
shares this opinion. "The biggest mistake I find people make is not going at
the child's own pace. We need to let them set the pace, let them say when
they're ready to go closer."
Meet an adult dog, not a puppy. When your child is ready for that
next step -- getting closer -- find a mellow, adult dog to start with, not a
puppy. Like little kids, puppies are unpredictable, wiggly, excitable, and when
they're very young "they still have the mouthiness going on," Payne says, and
"the last thing you want is for a puppy to run up and give your child a little
nip." You can also look for a group that does doggy meet and greets, says
Payne, or reading programs where therapy dogs go into libraries. "Situations
like that where the child isn't immediately forced to interact are very
Learn a little doggish. In these early interactions, you'll have
lots of time to teach your child about canine communication. "Dogs don't have a
verbal language," says Case, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and
Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends, "so they
communicate with facial expressions and body postures." For example, look for
that famous doggy smile, which is "mouth open, lips pulled back, tongue sort of
lolling, no tension in the face," Case tells WebMD. "It looks similar to our
smile and it's an invitation to interact and can be interpreted the same way as
you would a smile in humans." To help your child learn these cues, look at a
book of photos of dogs, and ask your child 'What's that dog feeling?'" Pelar
says. "Then go to a park and do the same thing, look at dogs and talk about
them. That's how I'd start."
Search out dressed-up dogs. As silly as it sounds, kids (and adults)
are often far less fearful of canines in clothes, so be sure to point out
dressed-up pooches to your child. "I found that if I dress my dogs in bandanas,
or put their therapy vests on, it makes a huge difference for kids," Payne
says. "And it works for adults too -- the brighter the clothes the better!"
Pelar agrees, "I always put a bandana on the dog if we do school visits.
Something about the clothing just makes people more likely to
Petting a pooch. Once your child is ready to take the plunge and
touch a dog, it's a good idea to keep the pooch occupied and let your child pet
the dog's body instead of the more-intimidating head. "You don't want the dog
looking at your child because the dog's face is what tends to be scary to
kids," Payne says.
Prepare for the sniff and lick. When a child is ready to let the dog
interact "parents need to understand that dogs check you out by sniffing you,"
Payne tells WebMD, so make sure your little one is prepared. "Tell your child
'The dog is going to sniff you, and he might give you a kiss!'" That quick
smooch can be a dog’s way of giving your child the thumbs up, or the canine way
of getting to know you better.
Teach kids manners. Safe and happy interactions between kids and
dogs have a lot to do with "teaching kids gentleness and respect at a very
young age," Case says. So be sure you teach your little one to never push, hit,
or tease a dog, or pull on a dog's tail.
Always ask. Finally, the most important thing: Teach your child to
always ask first before approaching a dog they don't know.
One way to not help your child overcome a fear of dogs:
Sometimes parents get a dog to help their children overcome a fear of
dogs, but doing so is "a bad idea," Pelar tells WebMD. "It's too much, too
soon. The dog is everywhere. Even if you have a room where you keep the dog --
which I don't advise -- the child doesn't feel safe in that room."
Instead, if you want a dog around the house, try dog-sitting a neighbor's
pooch for a weekend. Just "don't make big decisions and commitments for
something that may not work," Pelar says.
Overcoming a Fear of Dogs: Time is On Your Side
Little Carly is still taking a wait-and-see approach to dogs. "I just asked
her what she thinks about them," says mom, Laura, "and she says that dogs are
'too wild, and remember that time one bit my dress?'" But Carly is getting
better, mom says. She used to be scared of kittens too, but now has a full-on
5-year-old's obsession with them.
Allowing nature to take its course -- that may one of the best tips on how
to help your child overcome a fear of dogs.