How to help a nervous child learn to love dogs -- or at least not fear them

Not all kids love dogs, but there are ways to help children overcome fear.

Most dogs are adorable and friendly. Most dogs want to love and please every human they meet, even if that love is slobbering. Most dogs like kids. Most kids like dogs.

Many children who do not grow up with dogs in their home will go through a normal fearful phase. This will usually resolve on its own as they have more outside interactions and fun experiences with dogs. This happens best when parents remain non-reactive and model calm behaviors around dogs, particularly when a child responds with fear to the overly friendly dog who has barked too loud or accidentally knocked a child over.

But some children will develop an extreme fear of dogs that persists over the years and can greatly curtail their activities. As a parent, what can you do to fix or prevent your child’s fears?

In my own therapy practice, I often treat dog phobias and rather wish I could treat them more, because successful treatment for a phobia always involves exposure to the feared situation and this means ordering up a variety of dogs from our pet therapy program. Over the course of treatment, the phobic children practice exposures with dogs of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments.  

Fortunately, most children with dog fears will not need formal therapy. To get a better sense of how parents can help their own children at home, I interviewed Lisa Serad, MS, Program Coordinator of the Gerald B. Shreiber Pet Therapy Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Lisa recruits and trains therapy dog teams, raises awareness of pet therapy, and oversees the dozens of volunteers who participate in the program. She is also a dog trainer and dog lover.

How can parents provide a positive learning experience to the average child who might be a bit frightened of dogs?

Go slowly, and carefully screen the dog. The most convenient dog (neighbor's, friend's, or relative’s dog) may not be the best choice to try this with. If you want simple exposure, recruit a dog that is kind, sweet, used to kids, and pretty much unflappable. There are many family pets that are great dogs for this type of exposure work; they don’t have to be a therapy dog. Also, know your dog’s handler – are they level-headed and do you trust their judgment?

How can parents handle situations in the real world when a dog does something that frightens their child?

Please do not force your child to pet the dog! I see it happen far too often! I tell the kiddos in my life to “be a tree” if they are around a strange dog that has gotten away from its owner “since trees don’t play back!” On the positive side, dogs are great ice breakers!  If the owner seems receptive, ask questions about their dog. There are lots of ways to connect with the dog without even touching it. In my opinion, a good, noncontact experience outweighs a bad experience.

I strive in my exposure sessions to also provide basic education and skills building to kids about dogs, such as how to tell if a dog is feeling friendly, how to best approach a dog, how to safely give a dog a treat, and how to know when it is best to just leave a dog alone. How can parents educate their own children on these topics?

All of those are wonderful ideas!  Many folks don’t understand that a dog’s body language is very different from a person’s. I wish parents would educate themselves and their kids about a dog’s body language. A dog showing the whites of its eyes, or with its ears or whiskers back, might not be having the best day and they should give that dog a wide berth. The same for a dog that is yawning or licking its lips. The dog is sending signals that it isn't comfortable. This may be a dog that just is having an off day. Yes, dogs have them, too!

Which websites do you recommend to parents who want to prevent or ameliorate their child’s fear of dogs?

CHOP and Kohl’s Injury Prevention Program has a brochure for interacting with dogs, available on the CHOP website.  The behavioral medicine team at PennVet also has a good website with great information. Lastly, a healthy dose of respect and caution are fine for your kids to have with strange dogs, but if you suspect your child has an extreme fear, or possibly a dog phobia, you should definitely seek professional help.