A fear of dogs is one of the more common childhood phobias, especially among smaller children. Most kids are afraid of dogs for one of several reasons:
Why children fear dogs
A) They’ve had a bad experience with a dog. This doesn’t necessarily mean being bitten; if a dog scared them severely, that’s enough to do the trick. A dog can cause quite a fright just by running at a child, barking viciously at them, or jumping up on them.
B) Dogs can be loud and unpredictable. They bark, they lick, they nibble, and they jump – all things that may scare a particularly anxious child. Kids, like the rest of us, prefer our world to be predictable.
C) If you’re somewhat anxious, they may have absorbed fears from you or someone else. Adults can transfer fear to kids through how they act around dogs.
D) Dogs are scary! Adults sometimes forget how these beasts can appear to a small child. They have big sharp teeth, sharp claws, and may come up to a child’s eye level. It would be like you staring face-to-face with a 6-foot tall velociraptor. In times past, children could become prey and be eaten by such an animal. So there’s likely a bit of instinctual fear at play here.
How to deal with a child’s fear of dogs
- Never ask a child to pet a dog if he’s terrified. Though some exposure is necessary to help them get over their fear, forcing kids to interact with a dog while terrified isn’t the way to do it. This merely reinforces the fear circuitry in their brain.
- Pick them up. When you encounter a dog on a walk or in the park, this simple act can help them feel secure. It may even give a child the courage to get closer or even touch it.
Helping kids overcome their fear of dogs
- Start by exposing them to dogs through media. Read them picture books about dogs or rent movies like ‘101 Dalmatians’ or ‘Lady and the Tramp.’ If a child is afraid of a particular dog such as a neighbor’s pet, see if you can get pictures and expose them that way.
- Since a dog’s barking is often what gives kids this fright, talk to them about how dogs bark loudly because it’s their way of talking. They bark when they want to say hello or when they’re excited about something. Whenever you hear a dog barking, play a game to guess what he might be saying, and get silly with it; the funnier the better.
- Let kids interact from a distance they feel safe at. Look at dogs that are separated by a barrier, such as a fence or through the glass of a pet store or kennel. Familiarity tends to bring comfort, so the more opportunities you give them to simply be around dogs through a barrier, the less fearful they’ll become.
- Play caretaker games with stuffed animals. Buy an oversize stuffed dog, and teach your child proper protocol for petting a dog. Provide them brushes and a leash and play at taking care of it. Especially if you play with them, they’ll have fun, and this enthusiasm can carry over into real-world courage.
- When it comes time to interact face to face, start with a small and friendly puppy, then work your way up to bigger dogs.
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