Having grown up around dogs and cats, I’ve never even entertained the possibility that one of my own kids would ever feel anything but comfortable around animals.
The fact that we adopted two one-year-old labradors when the girls were 5 and 7 has only strengthened their love for pups, and I can do nothing but complement myself and my husband for teaching them how to be gentle, caring and attentive with other people’s pets.
When my sister’s son came to visit us for the first time (given the pandemic and the fact that we live an ocean apart), we were stunned to realize he was petrified of the dogs.
We quickly consulted Google, my vet and our puppy trainer, and luckily have managed to go from terror to caution – but the relationship is still a work in progress.
Let me share what we have learned, in the hope it will help you help your child overcome their fear of dogs.
Consider your own behavior
Once you have acknowledged that the fear is very real, don’t ever try to brush it off lightly.
Don’t tell your child there is nothing to fear. They need to retain a healthy awareness around all animals after all. That way you will just be blatantly disregarding their feelings. Acknowledge their emotions, accept that they are afraid, and work on lessening the fear, not dismissing it.
Even if you find their fear irrational, they don’t see it as such – and it’s your job to help, not tell them they have no right to their feelings.
Also consider what you usually tell your kids about dogs. If you often say things like “careful, don’t touch that dog”, or if you prevent your kids from approaching dogs, you may be part of the problem.
Teaching them appropriate ways to approach animals and basic safety precautions is one thing – instilling a fear in them quite another.
Get to the root of the fear
Ask your child what it is they are afraid of. They may not be able to explain, especially if they don’t know themselves, but you might get a very straight answer. For example, they may tell you they are afraid the dog will bite them or jump on them.
If you get a concrete answer, work from there. Disentangle their beliefs and explain when a dog may have reason to bite or jump on them, explain the difference between a playful dog who’s jumping around and a dog who is ready to attack.
If you don’t get an answer, don’t worry – you can still work through the fear.
Teach them doggy behavior
If your child understands why dogs do certain things, they will be much better prepared for an interaction.
Read up on typical dog behavior yourself, and explain all the common cues – wagging tail, tail between legs, showing their belly, and so on.
Then watch dogs in a park, from a safe distance, and talk with your child about their emotions and behaviors.
When the time comes to meet an actual dog, tell them what to expect. The dog will likely give them a sniff, and they also may be licked. If they know to expect this, they will be much less frightened.
Interact with adult dogs
Puppies tend to be more wild and unpredictable, so introducing your child to a well-behaved adult dog is a great way to break some of the initial barriers.
Make sure the dog is on its leash and that it is not bothered by children. Ideally, you want it to be a friend’s or a family member’s dog, whom you can interact with fairly regularly.
We’ve talked to our vet specifically about the breeds that are best with kids, and he pointed out French Spaniels as a friendly and loving breed that is large enough to help you work through the fear well, but that is also super mellow and chilled.
(I’m now trying to convince my husband to get one, but I assume it’s a lost cause)
Take baby steps – let your child see the dog, watch it play and watch others, preferably kids their own age, interact with it. When they admit they are ready, introduce them. Make sure they know where to pet the dog, and warn them about the aforementioned sniff and lick.
Don’t be discouraged
Your child may burst into tears when they need to pet a dog – if that is the case, don’t force the issue. Let them calm down, and work on dismantling the fear before you try again.
Exposure therapy is important, so try to be around dogs and other children as much as possible. Don’t give in to your child’s wishes never to be around dogs. The longer they hold on to their fear, the more difficult it will be to deal with going into adulthood, so stay patient and work your way up to a meet and greet slowly.
Ask for professional assistance
There are plenty of shelters, vets and other animal and pet organizations that offer their help in precisely these kinds of situations. There are also child psychologists who can help you work with your child on overcoming their fear.
Don’t be afraid to ask for their help. Phobias are perfectly normal, if not perfectly rational, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. With the right help, you can help your child overcome theirs.
Try not to give in to the kind of advice that just says they’ll grow out of it or that you just need to get them in the presence of a dog. Fear is a very complex emotion, and antagonising your child will do a lot of harm, and definitely no good.
Are you afraid of dogs?
I would love to know what your experiences are with dogs and other pets. Did you kids take to them right away, or was there some initial fear involved? I’d love to know what you are doing to combat the issue!
For a list of kid-friendly dog breeds, click here.
About the Author
Julia is the mum of two girls and two Chocolate Labradors, a work-from-home wife and a huge Shonda Rhimes fan. While she manages to juggle well most of the time, she has been known to hand one of the dogs a sandwich, and pour kibble into a plate. You can read some of her work on Medium.