Q.  Our 7-year-old son is terrified of dogs. I’ve no idea why, and he’s not afraid other critters. My husband thinks I’m too protective. He wants to give our son a puppy for his birthday, thinking that having his own dog will help him overcome his fear. What do you think?

A.  There are many possible reasons why children develop a fear of dogs:

  • Kids may have an experience with a dog that frightened them. A dog may have licked the child’s face, jumped on him or given scary tiny nips. Children can confuse a dog by running away, which the dog takes as an invitation to play. A dog’s continued engagement may frighten the child even more.
  • An adult may have unintentionally taught the child that all dogs are scary by repeatedly warning to stay away from all dogs.
  • Sometimes parents are afraid of dogs, and children may sense that fear and model the behavior.
  • Tracy Dennis, PhD, in the psychology department at Hunter College, points out that some kids have “a lower threshold for feeling distress when they encounter something new or unexpected.” This can explain other fears as well.

So, how can you help your son get over his fear? Here are some suggestions that start with activities that have no contact with a dog and work up to being close to a real dog:

  1. Together with your child, read books and watch TV shows or films about friendly dogs. Have a discussion about the dogs.
  2. Shop with your child and buy one or two stuffed animal dogs he can cuddle up to.
  3. Role play, with you and your child taking turns as the dog. Through role play, you may find out why your child is frightened of dogs.
  4. Slowly work up to watching a dog on the sidewalk or at a park—on a leash and at a distance.
  5. Discuss with your child that some dogs are good to pet and some you need to give plenty of space. Read the article “What Your Child Needs to Know about Dogs” by Brenda Schoolfield in the April Issue of Austin Family magazine. You’ll find helpful information about the importance of getting permission from a dog’s owner before petting a dog, as well as how to approach and when not to approach.
  6. When your child seems ready to pet a real dog, choose an older dog that has become accustomed to children and being petted. A dog that visits assisted living centers or children’s hospitals would seem ideal.
  7. Before buying a dog, consider borrowing one from a neighbor or friend for a short period of time to see if your son is ready to interact.

While some adults tell me they overcame their fears when their parents bought a dog for them, I keep in mind that not all kids will adjust as easily and will need the steps above. I also suggest that when your child is ready, you let him pick out his own dog, whether it’s a puppy or an older dog. Let him fall in love with a dog.

But what if all the above suggestions don’t work, and your son is still terrified of dogs? At that point, you need to seek professional help. Your child may have a clinically significant phobia. In an American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology article from 2005, author Joel Sherrill, PhD, reported research suggesting that clinically significant phobias occur in about 5 percent of children. These are the children who need professional help.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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