Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Doggie?
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.”
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.)