It’s not entirely uncommon for children to have a fear of dogs. We often think about dogs as family pets, but for some children, they can be incredibly scary.
There may be a reason your child is fearful of dogs. For example, maybe your child was the victim of a dog bite at some point in their life.
In other cases, you might not know where the fear stems from.
Specific phobias are the most common psychological-related condition among children, and of these, a fear of dogs is one of the most frequently seen. Having an extreme fear or phobia of dogs is known as cynophobia.
Regardless of the specific situation, what should you do to help your child overcome a fear of dogs in a healthy way?
Understand the Fear
The first step of helping your child with a fear of dogs is often to understand the fear.
For your child, again, there may be a specific link to their fear, but maybe there isn’t.
When you understand your child’s fear, with that comes the comprehension that fear isn’t rational. No rationalization is going to help your child because of that.
Rather than rationalizing the fear or attempting to, your first steps should involve helping your child recognize and accept their fear.
From there, once you understand and accept the fear and you’re working with your child to do the same, be careful about what you say. You never want to reinforce your child’s fear of dogs with your word choice.
For example, if every time you approach a dog and you ask if it bites, that can reinforce your child’s fear. Just be mindful of what you say.
Reassure Your Child
This relates to what was above—you want to reassure your child when they’re fearful of dogs, and much of this will stem from how you talk to your child about dogs and their fear of dogs.
Watch the messaging you send, and when you’re around dogs, be neutral with your word choice.
Model Interactions with Dogs
If you have the opportunity to interact with dogs when your child is around, model what this should look like. For example, show your child how to properly greet a dog. Talk your child through what a dog is doing as they’re getting to know you.
Your child might be more comfortable watching you interact with a dog if there’s some separation, such as a gate, for example.
Redefine Bravery and Reward It
You want to teach your child not that being fearful is the same as being cowardly. Instead, work to redefine the concept of bravery with your child so that it reflects that it’s when you try hard to not feel afraid. Teach your child as long as they’re trying that’s what matters, even if they technically fail at their attempt at bravery.
Then, once you’ve defined what bravery means in your home, start to reward brave behaviors.
You can use something simple like a sticker chart that will provide a visual representation of your child’s bravery.
Empathize with Your Child
Any time your child is feeling afraid, whether it’s because of dogs or anything else, try to be mindful of what they’re feeling and experiencing. Remember to be present with them and show them a sense of empathy as far as their feelings.
Let them know that you’re there for them and they can trust you during challenging times.
You should also be patient.
It takes time—sometimes a long time—to get over a big fear.
If your child is making progress that’s what counts, no matter how long it’s taking.
Facing the Fear
Eventually, there will have to be a time when your child faces their fear.
How you handle this and how you present this opportunity is up to you.
Maybe you visit with a therapy dog, for example. There are organizations in many communities with therapy dogs specifically trained for these kinds of interactions.
Regardless of how you decide it’s best for your child to face their fear, it needs to be in a safe, controlled environment.
Maybe you lead by example too.
Finally, don’t think that getting a puppy is the best initial idea to help your dog overcome their fear of dogs. You should work through many other steps before bringing a puppy into a home with a child who’s afraid of dogs.
Puppies, in particular, can be fully of energy and unpredictable, and that can exacerbate a child’s fear of dogs.