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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Doggie?

Apr02

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Hi Amy!

I’m a huge fan of yours and I am turning to you in the hopes you will bestow your sage advice on a problem we’re having with our LO. She is about the same age as your youngest (she’ll be 3 in June) and is generally amazing. Our issue with her has to do with her fear of others’ pets. She is terrified of dogs and cats and we’re concerned that this is starting to affect her/our social relationships. Because she is so scared (and reacts with screaming and the occasional/hilarious “DON’T LOOK AT ME, CHEDDAR!!!”) our friends have to lock their pets away when we come over. Efforts to try to introduce her to the pet in question are met with abject terror.

In the warmer months, she freaks if she’s in her stroller and a neighbor walking a dog is even a block away from us on the sidewalk (requiring me to change to the other side of the road, or just skip walks altogether as we live in a VERY pet-friendly community). In the prior summers, I could just wear her and that made it much easier because she was high up and in my arms. This summer, she’s just too big for that. Do you have advice for how we can help her overcome her fears, at least so we can go for outdoor walks without screaming and possibly even go to a friend’s house?
I have to add something here. My husband and I are NOT pet people, particularly after a bad experience when we adopted an elderly rescue dog who ended up biting me in the face. It was pretty awful. I guess I worry a bit that my own fears of dogs are rubbing off on my daughter.

Thank you SO much!!

First up? A fear of animals is so very normal for toddlers and preschoolers — honestly right up there with fears of the dark, monsters, water, etc. And I can’t say that I blame them all that much, when you think about it from the perspective of a small, close-to-the-floor human.

Dogs, in particular, are unpredictable to children. They make loud noises. They jump up and scurry around like spastic maniacs. They stick their wet noses on you and slobber and sniff and lick you…and that’s what they do when they’re “nice” dogs who are just happy to see you! Meanwhile, “mean” dogs (and cats) growl, show you their scary teeth, and yes — your daughter has probably figured out that some dogs (and cats) bite. It’s possible she’s overheard you tell someone what happened to you, or she simply senses your fear and discomfort…or it’s entirely possible it has NOTHING to do with you and she’s just come by this fear all on her own. Like I said, it’s a super-common one.

(Fellow dog bite victim here — I was attacked by a high school friend’s “nice” German Shepherd who tore up my leg. Luckily I had enough positive experiences with pets prior to the bite that I wasn’t left with a full-on generalized dog phobia — but I admit I reman irrationally terrified of that specific breed and get incredibly anxious around them. Like, I have to cross the street during walks or leave the dog park when I see one. And yet none of my children have ever shown the least bit of fear around dogs and we’ve had to actively work on the opposite problem: Do Not Run Over To Every Dog You See And Rile It Up And Get In Its Face OMG Stop That Remember The Dog Rules! Dog Rules!)

So. There’s a healthy level of fear — a level that will keep her cautious around strange animals and remind her of the proper way to interact with them — and then there’s…what’s going on right now, which is full on terror/anxiety/fight-or-flight adrenaline response. Which we definitely don’t want for her sake, not to mention that I’m sure her over-the-top reaction to sweet little Fido probably is wearing on your animal-loving friends and family.

We had a little neighbor girl who would scream and freak out over our tiny dog and demand that I lock her up or not ever let her out in the backyard while she was there. Even if I held our dog and promised her I wouldn’t put her down, the screaming continued as long as the dog was in her sight. (Even through a closed glass door!) She was FIVE and had never been bitten or anything — she’d just always been scared of dogs since toddlerhood and hadn’t been able to move past it. It was pretty awful and stressful for everybody — the little girl, her embarrassed parents, and even me, the dog owner, since I was admittedly a little, “what the hell? my dog’s not going to hurt you, STOP SCREAMING AT ME.”

(That tangent has a point, I swear. I’ll circle back to it in a minute.)

Here’s what NOT to do:

1) Do not force interaction with dogs or cats. Any of them. Even the nicest sweetest fluffball you know. At least not yet.

2) Do not discount her fear. Her FEAR is real. The actual THREAT in the situation may not be all that dangerous, but don’t say things like, “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid of, don’t be silly, come on, it’s just a nice doggie, etc.”

Instead:

1) Acknowledge her fear and respect it, and serve as her protector. “I know you’re scared of that dog, so I won’t take you any closer to that dog. We’ll walk away from that dog right now.”

2) Go to the bookstore and library and get a bunch of happy books with nice dogs and cats in them. Get a mix of books about “real” pets, and ones where the animal is a more of a humanized cartoon character. Read her the books and point out the dogs. Tell her these are nice dogs and see if you can get her to “pet” the pages. (If Snuggle Puppy and Doggies [have her mimic the different silly barking sounds!]. Characters like Clifford, Spot, Harry, Skippyjon Jones are all great…hey look, Amazon has an entire department of “Children’s Dog Books” divided by age . And here’s one for cats. Your options are beyond endless!)

3) Next, move on to stuffed animals and toys. Let her pick one out and select a name, like she’s adopting a pet. Practice petting, brushing, feeding, all that jazz. Maybe get a “bigger” stuffed dog as well and let her act out her fears — the bigger toy might snarl or bark really loud and frighten the smaller toys, then you can act out a solution, like the toys become friends once they sniff and pet and get to know each other. Or put the big dog on a leash so it can’t scare anybody anymore.

4) When you’re feeling brave and ready to test out some real interaction, go slowly. Like visit a zoo or a pet store where she can look at animals from a safe vantage point. (Though be careful about pet stores that let people bring leashed pets inside — something more old-school with puppies and kittens in cages/enclosures might be better for her, even though I know they are crazy depressing.)

Eventually — provided you don’t rush anything and continue to always, ALWAYS acknowledge her fear, promise to protect her and don’t force her into anything, she’ll hopefully gain some confidence around the “nice” doggies at your friends’ homes. Don’t spring the pets on her — tell her before you get there that Cheddar will be there and today Cheddar is going to stay out in the kitchen/living room, if that’s okay with her. Cheddar is a nice doggie like [book or toy character name]. But she doesn’t have to pet Cheddar or touch him or anything she doesn’t want to do, and that’s also okay. But maybe we could ask to put Cheddar on a leash and take him for a walk or give him some food like [book to toy character name]! No? You don’t want to? That’s okay! You don’t have to. Just remember that screaming hurts Cheddar’s ears, and he’s a nice doggie and we don’t want to hurt his ears.

(At this point, if she’s still listening to your babbling at all and cares one iota about Cheddar, it’ll probably be a miracle.)

Oh, and our little neighbor girl? She started carrying around a little stuffed puppy not long after they moved in. Puppy went everywhere with her for awhile, and they also read her a lot of dog-related books and showed her TV shows and movies about nice dogs. I heard a lot about Littlest Pet Shop as well. One day, out of the blue, she came in our house and announced that she was no longer afraid of our dog, our dog was cute and she loved her.

(They adopted a puppy last weekend.)

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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19 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Doggie?”

  1. K Apr 02 at 8:27 pm Reply Reply

    D’awwwwww.  

    I’m SO HAPPY for the little girl in the anecdote!  So happy!  

  2. Em Apr 02 at 10:30 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks for this question and answer! My little girl will also be 3 in June and is also terrified of dogs. So you are not alone! I am going to try the book idea – it’s a good one!

  3. twinmamateb Apr 02 at 11:28 pm Reply Reply

    Fellow parent of terrified kid here. We even had trouble at the zoo, she was just terrified of all animals (and we have 2 cats!). 

    My daughter is 5 now and is slowly getting over her fear. I simply let her come around on her own. If you force it you may lose her trust. 

    And if friends won’t put their dogs in another room for you? They aren’t very good friends. 

    • Janet Apr 03 at 11:36 am Reply Reply

      Agree that dog owners (or cat owners) need to be sensitive to visitors in their home as well.  My friend has two crazy little French dogs and two kids of her own my kids ages.  My kids are *terrified* of their little yippy not-well-behaved dogs and my friend understands and baby gates the dogs into a certain area when we are there.  Her husband, on the other hand, lets the dogs out whenever he is around and is completely oblivious to the fact that my kids lose it and his dogs misbehave and jump all over us.    
      Dog people, I get it.  You love your dogs.  That does not mean anyone else loves your dogs.  If you invite us over, try to be accommodating.  Or just don’t have people over.

  4. Emily Huston Apr 03 at 6:16 am Reply Reply

    It’s pretty normal that Preschool children are having fear of large animals, dark places, masks, and supernatural creatures. The best way to get rid of child anxiety is by taking them to zoo and letting them interact with them. 

  5. DontBlameTheKids Apr 03 at 10:23 am Reply Reply

    We have a similar problem (to a lesser degree). My 18 month old is scared of dogs, except our dog. Doesn’t matter the size, color, breed. Like Amy said, I don’t force her to interact with other dogs. I do make sure I pet the other dogs in front of her to show her I am not scared. I figure, eh. She’ll outgrow this fear probably, right? I mean, she is around our dog all the time. The most important thing I have learned about irrational child fear is DO NOT RUSH THEM.

  6. Angela Apr 03 at 11:33 am Reply Reply

    I saw a toddler have a bad experience with a dog, and while she’s not afraid of animals because of it, I’M sure scared of small kids around dogs now!  A friend’s toddler was standing near another friend’s dog, and since this was a big dog she was pretty much looking this dog in the eye.  Well, out of the blue the dog just nipped her forehead.  (I think the dog had some biting issues to begin with – why the owners didn’t put the dog in the other room is another story.) My point is, it’s not necessary for every kid to be petting dogs and cats.  In fact, until they’re older, it could be good for them to keep their distance.  Older kids can sense when a dog is getting annoyed, but toddlers cannot.

  7. MR Apr 03 at 1:16 pm Reply Reply

    First off, I have to say Amy, your fear of German Shephards, is in no way irrational. You had a bad experience with one. That has left you very RATIONALLY afraid of them. OP, I just want to add to the chorus of “that’s totally normal!” I also want to say, as a person who has two large dogs, including a German Shephard, I completely understand kids who are afraid of them and have NO PROBLEM locking our dogs up for a play date or while the family is over. That’s just part of the deal for us. When my niece was around 6 or 7 months old, she was sitting on the carpet and my very docile and friendly cat rubbed up against her and knocked her over. Her balance wasn’t that great to begin with, and the cat was about the same size as her, so my niece was pretty easily knocked over. She wasn’t hurt, but sure was startled and scared. From that point on, she screamed whenever she saw a cat or dog. Her fear lasted a long time. When she was ten and came to visit at our house (they had to travel to get here, so they were staying with us), we pretty much kept her and the dogs separated the whole time. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fun, but we respected her fear of them. Through those visits and seeing the dogs interact with our kids, she came to love our dogs, and then begged her parents for one, even saving up enough money for the fee to get one from the shelter, and pay for food and vet services for a year (her parents requirements because they lived in a condo and were hoping she’d change her mind). But, my point is, your daughter will get bigger, and this will become less of a problem. Either because she learns to love animals, or because she learns how to handle herself around them despite not liking them. And that’s ok. Give her time and respect her boundaries.

  8. Hillary Apr 03 at 3:17 pm Reply Reply

    Great question and great advice! As the (former) owner of a well-trained but occasionally reactive dog, I also put him away when people came over, and was very careful to avoid potential triggers when I took him for a walk. On the flip side, when I’m out with the kids, I avoid any dog that is not on a leash, and even some that are leashed, but aren’t well controlled by their walkers. I just cross the street with both kids. If I see an unleashed dog and can’t easily walk away, I call out to the owner to restrain/leash his dog. Dogs bite kids sometimes, and it can create lifelong fears that just aren’t worth the discomfort of asking dog owners to be respectful and follow leash laws.

  9. Cheryl S. Apr 03 at 3:50 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter was also TERRIFIED of dogs when she was younger. Full on run screaming from a chihuahua dog phobia. We did what Amy said. NEVER discounted her fear, but talked to her about nice doggies, etc. When she was about 6.5 she announced she wanted a dog. We started visiting pet stores and looking at puppies. We had her pet dogs that we knew were nice.

    Last year, (she was nearly 8) we went to a pet store and saw a German Shepherd puppy. She fell head over heals in love.

    The girl who was terrified of dogs is now the proud “mamma” to an 85 pound German Shepherd who is convinced he is a lap dog.

    Give her time. She’ll most likely get over her fear, but don’t force her.

  10. Mandy Apr 03 at 4:39 pm Reply Reply

    In terms of book recommendations, two books that came to my mind are Cat and Dog by Matthew Van Fleet. Both books have pictures of real life felines and canines and are entertaining to read.

  11. S Apr 03 at 4:47 pm Reply Reply

    Some people just aren’t pet people to begin with. My parents have owned two dogs and my husband had a dog when we started dating. These three dogs are the only ones I can really say I’ve liked. I was so very afraid of pretty much all animals when I was little and that gradually turned into just not really liking them. I won’t scream at your pets or act rude if you don’t control them, but don’t expect me to be happy about Fido jumping all over me or Kitty clawing at my leg. And you better believe I will control your pets if they decide to freak my kids out – just like I will control my kids so they don’t freak your pets out. My point? Once the screaming stops, the fear might still be there, or then she just might not be into animals all that much. As long as she isn’t panicking or freaking the dog out, there really is no need for her to be friendly with him if it doesn’t feel right to her.

  12. Maria Apr 03 at 5:16 pm Reply Reply

    I have this same problem, but not with one of my kids, but THREE of them!!  (The 4th is still too young and hasnt been around animals.  Our oldest (almost 8) is scared of dogs and doesnt like to be around them, but she is not terrified of them. But my middle one who is 6 is completely, absolutely, just like your little neighbor girl.  Anytime she hears a dog barking (even if she dont see it) or if she see’s a dog, she starts screaming like someone is torturing her, and also yells “BAD DOG” on occasion.  We have tried all those things you mentioned, and she likes dog and cat books and toys (yea she’s afraid of cats too, just not quite as bad as dogs, but still pretty bad) but when it comes to real life animals, oh watch out.  Our neighbors have like 8 or 9 dogs, and sometimes they let the little ones (only one at a time) out, and if the dog is anywhere outside, my daughter refuses to go out.  Which I do understand, and have asked out neighbors to keep their dogs in their fence, but they still let them out of the fence sometimes, and they get in our yard, and she cant go out.  The thing is, I dont know how to handle it anymore, I mean we are trying to give her time and see if she will just get over her fear on her own, but it’s not going anywhere.  As long as a dog is in the fence and not barking, she’s halfway ok, but if its outside the fence (even on a leash or chain) she screams bloody murder and runs like crazy (one time even jerked her hand out of mine and almost got ran over by a car). Any ideas of how to go about this with a 6 year old child? By now she is developing habits and “fears” that can last a lifetime, and I don’t want her to be afraid of dogs (and cats) all her life.  Oh and I also forgot to mention that we even had to first put our dog outside and then had to get rid of her because of middle daughter.  

    • MR Apr 04 at 1:35 pm Reply Reply

      I’d recommend taking the potty training approach with this. By that, I mean, step back and realize that her fears are not something you will ever be able to control. If she is afraid of dogs, then you cannot stop that. You can however help her channel that fear appropriately. So, dropping your hand and running into the street, not an appropriate reaction. Getting your attention and having you help her cross the street or get away from the dog, appropriate reaction. Keep up the patient approach of talking about good dogs. You might even see if you could get her to watch the Dog Whisperer (although I highly recommend you screen the episodes first so you don’t accidentally show her one where the dogs are super aggressive). But, the way he talks about dogs and how there are no such thing as bad dogs, that might help her. He also talks about how to calm your energy around a dog, and it is pretty powerful to see him completely turn a dog around in only a few minutes. It might help her to focus on what she can do herself to gain that power and ability, so she will always be able to “protect” herself. But, always keep the approach that you are not trying to erase her fear – you can’t do that for someone else. You are simply trying to help her get to a point where seeing a dog doesn’t completely make her panic and shutdown. She just simply may never like dogs ever. And that’s ok. But, she does need to learn how to survive in a world where people treat their dogs like children and take them everywhere.

  13. Kat Apr 03 at 5:30 pm Reply Reply

    Interesting question. We have a two year old who has no fear of dogs but does not appreciate my FIL’s unusually noisy and jumpy pet. I spent a few visits biting my tongue and feeling like a helicopter mom trying to run interference between the pet and my kiddo (toddlers are so easy to knock down! This dog, though not large was big enough to put his front paws on my son’s chest without too much effort – it just made me uncomfortable and I felt overly mama bear-ish about it). I finally said something, and though I think he kind of rolled his eyes, I think he now sees how much nicer/calmer the visits are with the dog outside. On the other hand, my parents have two black labs who basically ignore my son unless he engages with them and he has slowly but surely become more and more interested in them as he has gotten a little older and has been able to give them treats and toys and such. This doesn’t necessarily help, except to say that it’s okay to ask pet owners to put their animals away when you visit. If they don’t want to, have them over to your house. Just like we have to remember that not everyone loves kids/knows how to interact with them, pet parents have to remember that not everyone loves pets/knows how to interact with them (especially little ones!)

  14. vanessa Apr 03 at 9:56 pm Reply Reply

    I have a Lab and although I let her off leash all the time I am really, really careful to keep her away from kids unless they ask. 

    this is total anecdote but I babysat for a kid who had such a bad dog phobia he was in therapy. The therapist told them to get a dog, and they ended up with a french bulldog named Pierre ;)

    DO NOT go to a pet store that sells puppies/kittens. They are wildly unethical and nobody should even walk into them. Seriously. However, if you have friends with (very) well behaved/trained animals you might work with them–later in the process of course–and maybe your daughter can throw them treats over a gate or something.

    Good luck!

  15. BMom Apr 04 at 4:42 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter was terrified of dogs too, in a similar way really as a toddler. When she was about 2.5 we had friends with a pretty nice dog (whom they always gated into a room when we came over) but my daughter *loved* tossing treats to the dog. Now at 4.5 she is uneasy but not petrified of dogs. Though she did announced in the car one day “We shouldn’t get a dog because it might lick me.” Um, yup. Sounds good honey!

  16. Kat Apr 05 at 1:21 am Reply Reply

    For parents that might want to expose their kids to dogs, check to see if your local library has a reading dog program with therapy dogs. Due to personality and training, they are pretty unflappable. A reading dog program typically has dogs (and owners) that will sit or lay quietly as a non-judgmental audience for children reading aloud. They’d be great for gentle introductions.

  17. Cary Apr 05 at 7:07 pm Reply Reply

    Pet therapy dogs are a great idea! When the time is right, you could even look up some of the organizations that train therapy pets in your area, and explain your situation. They would be more than willing to help. Stay away from puppies. Puppy teeth are sharp and love to gnaw on little hands. They have not learned to respect boundaries and would probably just confirm your little one’s fears.

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