Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Puppy to the Rescue -- Overcoming Children's Fear of Dogs

Whether from inexperience or a specific event, some kids are really scared of animals. Well, our 4-year old, Elijah, was one of these kids until very recently. 


Until about a month ago, Elijah was scared of practically any animal that you can imagine, regardless of its size, age or species. Perhaps, the only animals that he wasn't fearful were insects. But, he was unable to pet or touch dogs, cats, squirrels, chickens, horses, and most other animals that kids would generally love to pet.

We always felt terribly bad for him because we knew that he liked and wanted to play with the animals, but was simply unable to let any of them approach him. His fear of animals was much stronger than his desire to enjoy their contact or presence. For instance, every time that we encountered a dog (including little ones), Elijah would be fearful and sometimes even hysterical.

Suggested Tips to Overcome the Fear of Dogs

Like most parents would do in a similar situation, we tried to help our son to overcome his fear of animals (especially dogs) in different ways, including the following things:

Understand and Accept your Child's fears -- As parents, we knew that one of the most important ways to help our child with his fear of dogs (and frankly anything else in life) was to help him recognize that he had a fear. As it is often said, you cannot fix a problem if you don't first accept that you have a problem. It was very important that Elijah recognize his fear and, more importantly, that he could talk about it with us. We tried this, and he recognized and was able to talk about his fear with us.

Watch what you say -- My husband and I always tried to make certain that we were not unintentionally creating or contributing to Elijah's fear of animals (especially for dogs) with the words we chose to say to him. What do I mean by this? Well, as parents, we may say things like "pet that dog under her chin, or else she might bite you", or sometimes parents tell to their child "before you touch the dog, don't forget to ask the owner if she/he bites or not?" According to most experts, when we choose terms or expressions like these, we are actually reinforcing our child's fear. 

Prepare for the sniff and lick -- We were told that one thing that seems to help many kids is to be prepared for an animal's reaction. So, every single time that we knew we will be in contact with an animal (especially dogs), we tried to prepare Elijah for the interaction by telling him "don't forget that dogs check you out by sniffing people or things". Honestly, we spent a lot of time preparing Elijah for potential encounters by choosing telling him things such as "the doggy is going to sniff you, and he/she might give you a kiss!". 

Meet an adult dog, not a puppy -- It is often suggested that to help kids overcome their fear to dogs, they should be introduced to an adult dog. Why not a puppy? Like little kids, puppies are unpredictable, wiggly, excitable, and when they're very young they often have the mouthiness going on. Following this advice, we 
introduced Elijah to mellow adult dogs of all sizes and breeds, but he was simply too fearful and did not let any dog come near him.

A Puppy to the Rescue -- A Solution?
Like my son, I was also extremely fearful of dogs when I was young. I am not certain from where this fear came from because I was never really attacked or hurt by any dog. But, like my son, I was unable to touch or be closed to any dog without being stressed and fearful of the situation. However, I was able to overcome my fear and feel more comfortable near dogs after I had my own puppy when I was about 8 years old. It was one of the most wonderful gifts that my dad ever gave me.

After trying many different tips (including those mentioned above) to help Elijah overcome his fear of dogs, my husband and I decided to get a puppy for the family. My stepson always wanted to have a dog, and both Sheldon and I though that both children would really benefit from the presence of a dog in their lives. So, we did our investigation and proper search and got a puppy.

I have to admit that although I knew it was a good idea, I was also a little bit nervous because I knew that puppies can be unpredictable and a little bit too crazy sometimes. Adult dogs are usually more patient with kids. Having said this, I also knew that Elijah was too fearful of dogs and a big dog (we knew that we wanted to have a Labrador or something similar in size) would simply scare him too much. Of course, I knew that introductions needed to be done with care. Not all puppies like children, and in some cases, puppies may actually be scared of children. 

As I said in a previous post, we adopted a Chocolate Labrador Retriever on June 29, 2014. Well, let me tell you that we did the right thing! Since Lola (our puppy's name) is in our lives, Elijah's fear of dogs has practically disappeared.  As you can see below, he loves to play and feed the puppy. He loves to take her out to do her basic needs, and he is even letting her chase him! It's a complete transformation; almost, as he was never fearful of dogs.




Puppies Can Help Children Improve Self-confidence

I have also noticed that the presence of Lola in my son's life is helping him to build self-confidence as well as overcome other fears. For instance, he is now much less fearful of other animals besides dogs. Elijah now wants to approach and pet other dogs (adult ones!) and even cats. Yesterday, I also saw him trying to feed a goat at a petting zoo. Honestly, I never saw him do these things before we got Lola. 

Although I understand why it is often said that when a child is fearful to dogs it is better to expose them to adult dogs, I know that my son needed a puppy and not an adult dog. He also needed to have the animal at home, and not just be exposed from time to time.


Yes, it is true that puppies can be a little crazy and unpredictable, but they are by definition small and cute. Small children love to take care of things, and when they are exposed to puppies, they immediately feel the need to take care of these small creatures. My son keeps saying that he is Lola's big brother and that he needs to take care of her because she is still a baby.

So, of all the different things that we tried to help our child deal with his fear of dogs, a puppy was the best solution. Of course, I know that this may not work for everybody, and that not all children will respond to the presence of a puppy like our son did. But, if it's done with care, I believe that a puppy can be a wonderful way to help a child overcome his/her fear of animals.

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