Over-coming fear of dogs

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 19, 2012 06:00 AM

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My 14 month old son has developed a fear of cats and dogs, which are the only animals he's been in contact with so far. He's never been hurt by either animal. We are not pet owners.

From a distance he seems to be very interested and excited to see a dog. He points, makes barking noises, smiles, but when we get close he freaks out, clings to me and cries. As for cats, he saw a cat for the first time this past weekend at my friend's house. The cat was just walking by about 5 feet away from him and was going in the opposite direction and he totally freaked out, jumped in my arms crying and trembling.

In these situations I would comfort him and do my best to tell him that the dog or cat was friendly and wouldn't hurt him. I even go over to the cat or dog pat it and try to show him it's ok. But at 14 months, I don't believe he really understands.

I'm hoping you can give me some guidance or tips on how I can work with my son to relieve his fears because my techniques don't seem to be working.

From: KF, Boston

Hi KF,

Something bad doesn't have to have happened to ignite his fears. Some kids are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, like dogs who bark loudly, or jump excitedly, or lick profusely. Well, doesn't have to be extreme in any of those cases. Some kids "learn" to be afraid of dogs or cats because of one in particular, or because parents are afraid. Not that this is genetic, more that parents give off body language or actually say things like, "Be careful!!" in a way that signals danger. The most likely reason, however, is that his growing brain has reached a new stage of cognition that enables him to suddenly evaluate in new ways: "Whoa! This animal is really big compared to me! This animal looks really scary from where I stand. Look at how fast it can run! Look at those teeth! Listen to that bark! Look how it jumps! Danger! Danger!!"

WebMD.com offers some common sense steps to overcoming these fears, including what I think is the most important: don't try to talk a child out of the fear. It's real to him. Saying things like, "Don't be silly, there's nothing to be afraid of," only makes your child wonder what universe you live in. Once your credibility is in question, almost anything you say doesn't compute.

Other pointers:

1. Go at your child's pace. There's no rush. If he's ready to meet a dog, fine; if he's not, that's fine, too. Don't push it.

2. When it comes to up-close introductions, look for mature dogs. Puppies may be cuter, but they are also harder to contain and very prone to jumping, nipping and licking.

3. Listen and look at yourself. What's your body language around other people's pets? What about your spouse, or your child's grandparents? Kids pick up on non-verbal cues and they have long memories about these sensory issues: "Remember? You told me dogs can have diseases."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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1 comments so far...
  1. What about getting some lifelike stuffed critters? They actually make stuffed dogs that are very realistic (even size-wise) that many trainers use as the first step in helping a fearful or aggressive dog change his conditioned emotional response to other dogs. You can also use the stuffed dog to practice the correct/safe way to approach, greet, and pet a dog. (Please research this. Although you may believe you know how to act around dogs, you'll want to double check your assumptions. I guaranty you that some of them are wrong. Check out the doggone safe website for advice on how to keep children safe around dogs.)

    One important thing. Be very careful about the dogs you decide to introduce your child to when he is finally ready. "Vet" them first (sorry for the pun) to be sure they are calm, enjoy (not just tolerate) children, and that the owner/handler has good control over the dog. One bad experience can destroy all your good work.

    Good luck!

    Posted by Susan June 19, 12 09:04 PM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. What about getting some lifelike stuffed critters? They actually make stuffed dogs that are very realistic (even size-wise) that many trainers use as the first step in helping a fearful or aggressive dog change his conditioned emotional response to other dogs. You can also use the stuffed dog to practice the correct/safe way to approach, greet, and pet a dog. (Please research this. Although you may believe you know how to act around dogs, you'll want to double check your assumptions. I guaranty you that some of them are wrong. Check out the doggone safe website for advice on how to keep children safe around dogs.)

    One important thing. Be very careful about the dogs you decide to introduce your child to when he is finally ready. "Vet" them first (sorry for the pun) to be sure they are calm, enjoy (not just tolerate) children, and that the owner/handler has good control over the dog. One bad experience can destroy all your good work.

    Good luck!

    Posted by Susan June 19, 12 09:04 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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