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Stinley's avatar

What can be done to help a child get over a fear of dogs?

Asked by Stinley (11484points) August 10th, 2017

I would like a dog. My husband isn’t keen but has expressed an interest in getting a pretty mid-brown dog, Labrador type. (He encountered one recently and fell for its looks). But my younger daughter, who is 10, is terrified of dogs and has got really upset by the dog talk in our house. Not only is she very scared but is also very stubborn. She says that their teeth are very dangerous.

So we have put the dog-owning on hold, despite the concession from my husband. However, I would like to help her get over this fear that she has. Do you have any methods?

We have a friend who has two dogs, one older and the other a couple of years old. The older one she tolerates as he is laid back but the barky, jumpy younger dog causes her to get hysterical.

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26 Answers

Coloma's avatar

Maybe consider some counseling as with any phobia you are not going to be able to talk your daughter out of her fears. I don’t want to say irrational fears though because dogs can be intimidating and dangerous, especially to young kids. I’d consider getting her into counseling and then, if you do go ahead and get a puppy to involve her in its training process and maybe engage her in a puppy training class with other people and puppies. I’d go with what a therapist suggests, first things first.

I think it would be a mistake to just get a dog until she feels more comfortable and overcomes her anxiety.

ragingloli's avatar

Train them in self defence and knife fighting.

Soubresaut's avatar

I think part of most animal-related phobias is a sense that you can’t predict their behavior, that they’ll be able to do their worse and you won’t see it coming. I’d find a way to start teaching her to understand dog communication, even if no dogs are present. Of all other animals, dogs are probably the best at projecting what they’re thinking in ways that humans can understand. (That’s what tens of thousands of years of coevolution brings, I guess!) Go over some basic body language and vocalizations with her: what a dog looks like when they’re friendly; what a dog looks like when they’re scared; what a dog looks like when they’re aggressive; etc. And then, what she can do in each situation? What do dogs usually like (e.g., smelling someone to meet them), what do dogs usually dislike (e.g., a stranger reaching for the top of their head or startling them)? How do you greet a stranger dog? How do you pet a dog (beginning with asking the owner, and reading the dog’s body language)? Etc.

After she knows at least some of these things, you can probably find ways to introduce her to dogs. Puppies might seem less threatening to her. Or perhaps you have a friend who has a mellow, well-trained adult dog—and then you can have her watch as the owner has the dog do whatever they’re trained to do, and she can see yet another level of predictability in the relationship between a dog and a human. Or perhaps the dog is just mellow, and will sit there and enjoy being pet. (Since she’s afraid of the teeth especially, she might be scared of playing with the dog, but maybe not… And a high-energy or rambunctious dog may seem less predicable to her initially.)

See if you can get her to feed the dog—first by dropping the food on the ground, and perhaps eventually by offering the food with an open hand.


Basically, I’d keep building her confidence in understanding dogs, and keep building her positive exposures to dogs, starting from the ground up.

[Edit—I just saw the last paragraph where you mention your friend’s two dogs! So I guess you’ve done some of this already.]

funkdaddy's avatar

I was also thinking puppies might help as @Soubresaut suggested above. Puppies are not intimidating.

Beyond that, has she ever been to a shelter? My daughter was scared of dogs until she got to engage with them in an environment where she was more in control. She now knows all of those dogs needs homes and someone to take care of them and likes it when their school goes to visit them.

I try to remember that if a squirrel or rabbit was about my weight, and ran up on me, I’d probably be freaked out too. From her perspective, that was her introduction to dogs, most likely.

Lawn's avatar

As mentioned in APA article provided by @Tropical_Willie and others, try some form of exposure therapy.

Have her use a scale from 1 to 10 to describe her level of fear.
Do “homework” every day.

Start with something easy, like watching a YouTube video of some dogs. Do this until it is a 1 or 2 on the scale for her.

Then have her in the same room as a mild-mannered dog. Start with dog in a crate and she is several feet away. Do this for several days until it is a 1 or 2 on her fear scale.

Then dog in same room on leash.

Then dog closer on leash.

Then dog lying on ground next to her.

Then she pets the dog.

Then dog licks her hand.

Then she feeds the dog a snack.

Then start over with the hyper dog.

Do the exercises every day and don’t progress to the next level until she is ready.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I have to say a lab might not be the best choice. They can be awfully high strung. Not dangerous, but rambunctious and they EAT. EVERYTHING.

I would say just bring a puppy home. Everybody loves puppies and she won’t be intimidated. As it grows…well, she won’t even realize it. She may still be afraid of other dogs, but she won’t be afraid of “her” dog.

I happen to own (or she owns me) a baby whisperer. It takes Dakota about 30 seconds to get a kid over their instinctive fear of dogs. You can bring your daughter to my house for 30 seconds! Any longer than that, though, and I’ll have to charge baby sitting fees.

Rarebear's avatar

Get a cat. If your 10 year old is afraid of dogs, then I’m not sure that getting a medium sized or big dog is the best move. She’s afraid—you can’t make her unafraid.

Remember, dogs are predators and a fear of predators is healthy.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, a puppy isn’t threatening, and as it gradually grows into a mid sized dog she won’t become afraid.
And some cats can be meaner than hell! I have one now. She’s not AS bad after 3 years, but she still draws blood for no reason than you (or a kid) are walking by.

josie's avatar

Get the dog while it is still a cute little 8 week old puppy and they can grow up together. Get a breed that loves humans. Labs are like that, so are Golden Retrievers.

Mariah's avatar

I’m a little bit nervous around dogs, especially when they weigh as much or more than me and they jump on me.

The most uncomfortable I can remember ever being around a dog was – I think a golden retriever – that was old enough to be big but apparently still pretty young, and it still had that puppy energy, and it was all over me almost knocking me over. I don’t agree that puppies are totally nonthreatening.

Does she feel any better about smaller dog breeds than larger ones?

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’d get a mixed breed puppy.

funkdaddy's avatar

To be clear, I believe we’re all talking about puppies

Pretty much the universal snuggle monster.

Stinley's avatar

Just to make clear – we’re not getting a dog. Dog ownership is on hold until she leaves home, unless she proposes it herself. I want to help her not be hysterical around dogs. She doesn’t find puppies cute. They are the worst for her – too jumpy, bitey and excitable.

Exposure therapy has worked to a small extent so far – recently she chose to come to a party where there was a laid back old dog rather than go to a (not very close) friend’s house.

Stinley's avatar

@Rarebear she’s scared of cats also…

seawulf575's avatar

Often we fear what we don’t understand. Help her understand dogs and their body language. I’ve seen studies of getting people over phobias with snakes where the person was introduced slowly to snakes. Start with a snake in a tank on the other side of the room. Then when that is comfortable, move a few steps closer. Do it gradually and pretty soon the person is handling the snake and is okay with it. Something similar might work with your daughter and dogs.

Soubresaut's avatar

@Stinley that makes sense, that she’s also scared of puppies and cats. It sounds like her fear is pretty consistent.

I think, like people have mentioned, a combination of teaching her about dog body language and general rules of interaction, and slowly incrementing her exposure to them, will be your best bet. You’ll be helping to take the mystery (read: vivid imagination) out of the interactions, and then giving her a chance to increase her threshold bit by bit. Sounds like she can handle being around older, mellow dogs, so start there. It also sounds like she’s still a little wary around those two dogs you mentioned, but can tolerate being with them? I’d pick one of those dogs, and have her work with him until she develops a relationship with him, until she’s relaxed and enjoys being with him.

Here’s a new idea to play with, too: As she gets more comfortable, you might sometimes have her narrate the body language she’s reading. It’s a chance for you to understand how she’s reading the dog. It would also give her a chance to put these things to words, which may make them seem more solid (and predictable).

Then I’d introduce her to another dog (maybe same energy level, maybe a little higher, depending on where she’s at).

Here, you might have her take the lead on reading the initial body language, narrating how this dog seems to be feeling, and how she’s going to interact with him (starting with standard first introductions, and then progressing as she learns what this new dog likes—back rub? scratches behind the ear? a treat? etc.) Again, you get information on how she’s understanding the dog, and she hopefully feels a bit more control in the interaction than she might otherwise, a bit more ownership over her developing understanding.

Eventually, if she can teach someone else about dogs, someone who doesn’t already know how to be around them, maybe a younger child, a classmate, etc., that could be a positive experience for her, too.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Why is she so scared of dogs and cats? And even puppies and kittens?

I’d really think about getting a puppy. See if you can find someone who would be willing to take the puppy after a month or so if it doesn’t work out. Sometimes sheltering our kids from things that we adults know to be harmless (for the most part) is not always the right thing to do.

snowberry's avatar

Have her watch YouTube channels on therapy dogs, seeing eye dogs, etc. if she can see how they are essential to someone’s life and ability to function, i think it would help a lot. Here’s one.

DarknessWithin's avatar

I’d say the solution is circumstantial.

I, as well, was terrified of dogs as a child.
The reason is unknown but my mom suspects it was because my paternal grandparents’ great dane had loomed over me, paws on my shoulders as an infant.

When a dog approached me, I’d scream, possibly cry and run like an antelope from a lion.
Any friend or friend of my mom’s whose house I’d spend time in had to put their dog outside or in another room. The only exception was my best friend’s first golden retriever (her family is now on their third) who was over 10 years old and did nothing but lay around.

Ugh, I can’t recall the exact year, but it had to be either the summer after 8th or 9th grade.
I went to Lake Tahoe with my best friend and a second friend. The second’s friend’s parents were the host parents and they had a Beramiese Mountain dog, Quanah.
We stayed in a cabin and the parents are sweet as can be, they, of course, kept the dog away from me as they always did at their own house.

One morning, however, when I awoke, I came down from our room on the second floor and Quanah approached me. I did not scream, cry or run. Something instead inspired me to reach out and pet her.

That was it. My phobia soon after diminished entirely.
I now own two dogs.

R.I.P Quanah. That dog will always have a special place in my heart.

You said that your daughter is afraid of their teeth, do you know why that is? Has she been bitten by a dog? Or has she witnessed a dog bite?
It might help in her case to show her videos on Youtube of service dogs (i.e Seeing eye dogs and wheelchair assist dogs) and owners, particularly children playing or exchanging affection with their dogs to illustrate for her that dogs can be loving, attentive and helpful.

If you’re going to attempt to introduce a dog into your home, then be sure to teach her to read dog body language so that she’ll understand how to interact with it (when it wants to be fed, played with, walked etc) and how not to.

Though if you can’t identify the cause of the phobia or if it’s messing up her life, she may require therapy.
The cat phobia, I’ve got nothing on.

Stinley's avatar

Thanks all. There’s some good advice about the exposure therapy. I am going to have difficulty explaining to her that I want her to get over her fear of dogs so that she can walk down the street by herself without fear, rather than it being because I want a dog and need her to be over her fear. As I said she’s very stubborn. It will take a lot to convince her of my motives. But I’m hoping that her recent trips to the shop, where she came running back into the house because she saw a dog, will convince her she would benefit from getting over this.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I don’t think I’d try to convince her of anything. It would be making a much bigger deal out of it, emotionally, than actually just showing up with a puppy.

When my kids were small I’d encourage them to do things that were outside of their comfort level, reassuring them I was right there, holding their hands and wouldn’t let anything happen to them. Gradually, confidence would replace the fear.

Stinley's avatar

Thanks, @snowberry. I’m seeing her tomorrow after three weeks apart so will have the time very soon to sit down with her and chat. I shall report back soon

Dutchess_III's avatar

I just think that you will never convince her with words, @Stinley. I think “chatting” about it will just leave her more afraid and stressed and nervous. But….I don’t know her so I’m interested in hearing how it goes.

BasedAmerican1's avatar

You need to get books or use the computer… to educate her on the behavior of dogs and how they tell you the way they feel. Let her get familiar with how dogs act in certain situations.
Dogs can be your best friend and can save your life. Show her how dogs help people in different ways.
These are just a few sites that may help you.

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