The fear of dogs is a common reaction for children, especially those younger than 6-7 years old. However, if the child is older, or has occasion to be around dogs on a regular basis, these tips can help prevent the development of a phobia that could endure even to adulthood.
Preventing a phobia of dogs
If you are thinking of adopting a dog, or if you believe that your child is exhibiting signs of anxiety when a dog is present, following a few simple steps can help prevent the development of a phobia of dogs.
- Discuss the fear with your child: Some of the normal behaviours exhibited by dogs, like barking, jumping up, or licking people, can seem strange to a child, especially if it is a dog they do not know. In these situations, the fear is a way to protect themselves from the unpredictable nature of animals. Take the time to explain the dog’s actions using easy to understand language. Show your child that it is best not disturb the dog while it is eating, not pull it’s tail, not hit or push the dog, not run or run away needlessly. Always ask the owner’s permission before approaching or petting an unknown dog. You may also want to ascertain if your child may have experienced a negative encounter with a dog that you did not witness.
- Lead by example: Whenever you come across dogs, show your child that it is best to not approach an unknown dog too quickly, but that a dog you know will usually be willing to play and be petted without showing signs of aggression. Never force your child to touch a dog, but create situations where your child can play with different dogs that you know to be friendly. By seeing that you are comfortable with dogs, your child’s fear may decrease.
- Show positive images of dogs: If your child is afraid of the size, the mouth or the teeth of dogs, it is possible that they have created an image of dogs as ferocious beasts. In this situation, it is possible to modify those perceptions by showing them positive images of dogs. You can use photographs of yourself as a child with your childhood pet, but also movies, documentaries, or animated films where dogs are presented in a positive manner as man’s best friend.
- Eventually progress to playing with a dog: Once the other steps have been mastered, you can try to introduce your child to a new dog. It is best to progress slowly, so as to not overwhelm your child. Approach the dog together and play with the dog using a toy, since this will likely be easier than petting the dog right away. It may be easier to start with an adult dog, or even a senior dog, that will be less likely to jump up from excitement during play. Even though puppies are smaller, they are much more excitable and difficult to control when faced with a fun game or toy. Start by having your child play with a sociable, quiet, and relaxed dog, one that has seen it all before!
If your child continues to have a fear of dogs, even after having tried all these steps, as well as different ways to meet and greet dogs, a dog behaviour specialist may be able to help you find other solutions.