Kids and dogs go together like peas in a pod. In the right environment, they can become best friends for life, a joy many of us experience every day.
However, for children, it’s sometimes different. They can develop fears of dogs for reasons both in and out of our control. Regardless of how they establish this phobia, though, it’s important to address those fears head-on.
If your child hides or panics when faced with a dog, follow these steps to help them relax and enjoy the company of some of the most loyal animals on earth.
1. Understand Their Fear
Before moving on to a solution, address the root problem: Why is your child afraid of dogs in the first place?
If they were bitten by a dog in the past, it’s probably obvious where their fear stems from. If not, do a little digging.
What have their past interactions with dogs been like? Were the dogs young or old, laid-back or rowdy? Your child could be reacting based off how dogs interacted with them because, sometimes, dogs are scared of children too.
Also, consider how you react around dogs. Are you scared or uneasy, or do you openly speak positively of them? Kids pick up on your behaviors and opinions more than you realize. Take a step back and consider — could you be at the root of their fears?
Whatever the reason, understanding why your child is afraid will let you speak directly to the problem and have a better chance of fixing it all together.
2. Be Patient
Forcing your child to spend time with dogs can add to their fears rather than relieve them. Instead of trying the “all or nothing” approach, take your time helping them overcome their fear. Taking baby steps to solve the issue will return long-term results.
Start by talking about dogs in a positive way, or even looking at fun pictures of them online (ones wearing costumes are the best). Once your kid is comfortable with the thought of them, try moving onto the next steps.
3. Spend Time Around Dogs
Before bringing your kid face-to-face with a dog, spend some time around them. Head to the nearest park to watch other dogs and their people play. Point out dogs on your walk, and make sure to say something positive about them, like, “Did you see how cute that dog’s pink collar was?”
It sounds simple — because it is. By commenting on the little things, your child will be able to shift their focus from fear to observation and curiosity.
Another fun tactic? Play a game of “I Spy” next time you’re at the park. Have your child spot things like a dog’s wagging tail, a drooling tongue or a colorful bandanna.
4. Teach Them How to Interact
If your child interacts with dogs in these ways, the end result could establish their fears even further. Teach them how to control themselves around dogs, including movements and volume. Even better, demonstrate it — let your kid watch you interact with a dog.
Make sure to point out things like:
- Letting the dog come to you.
- Greeting with a relaxed, outstretched hand (try palm down first).
- Keeping sudden movements under control.
- Speaking softly and using the dog’s name.
- Petting gently before bigger hugs.
- Always asking for permission first.
Once your child can speak a dog’s language, their interactions will become more relaxed and comfortable. For a visual tool, try using Dr. Sophia Yin’s poster on teaching kids how not to interact with dogs.
Check out this helpful guide to learning dogs’ body language:
5. Plan Meet-and-Greets
Once your child is up for it, schedule a meet-and-greet. Reach out to friends or family with dogs to set up a play date.
Keep in mind, pairing your fearful child with a rambunctious puppy might not be the best place to start. Seek out adult dogs who are well-behaved and laid-back. Remind your child to speak the dog’s language, and keep building from there.
While the process of overcoming a fear of dogs might be lengthy for your child, it’s well worth it to continue until they’re fully comfortable. Many childhood fears go away on their own, but some stick around and can become debilitating. Put the effort in now to ensure a happy future for your child and any dogs who come into their lives down the road.
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