By: Heather Rotolo, LCSW, Clinical Director-Behavior Clinic, Penfield Children’s Center

Everyone has fear. Whether it is public speaking or heights, fear helps us survive. If we didn’t have fear, we might take unnecessary risks such as running into the street without looking for cars. Fear helps us make rational decisions. We put life jackets on our children, cover them in sunscreen on sunny days and teach them about stranger danger. Fear helps us calculate risks and find solutions to help our children stay safe.

While all fears are legitimate, some produce unnecessary anxiety for our little ones, even if we take necessary precautions to keep them safe.

Fear of dogs, for example, is very real and isn’t always bad. Children (and adults) should exercise caution around animals, especially those they don’t know. However, if your child’s fear of dogs keeps him from playdates and in your arms every time you pass a dog being walked in the neighborhood, check out these 6 tips for helping him become more comfortable around dogs.

  1. Explain dog behavior. “That dog is running because he likes to play just like you,” or “He’s barking because that’s how he talks,” are good explanations for typical doggie behavior. Children can start to understand that these behaviors are not necessarily something to fear.
  2. Be his advocate. Don’t brush off your child’s fear of dogs. When you encounter a neighbor walking his furry friend and your child jumps into your arms, explain, “We’re learning to like dogs.” Also, reassure your child that you are there to protect him. Let him know that you’ll stay by him while in the presence of dogs and that you’ll help him become more comfortable.
  3. Work with a therapy dog. Find an organization in your area that trains therapy dogs and ask if there is a local dog your child can interact with. Explain your child’s fear of dogs and see if you can schedule a visit with a calm, older dog. Showing your child that he can pet and sit with a dog might calm him as he learns to navigate his fear.
  4. Show your child that playing with dogs is fun. Enlist the help of a trusted friend who will allow your little one to give his/her dog treats and take the dog for walks, when your child feels up to it. Toss a frisbee or ball in the yard and teach your child how to comfortably interact with the dog. This will build your child’s confidence and show him that dogs can be a friend instead of just an animal to fear.
  5. Use a stuffed animal dog for role play. Act out situations that might be scary for your child and show him how to handle them. Model how you interact with dogs by pretending to have the dog lick your hand and petting him.
  6. If you have a pet store nearby, take a trip to visit the puppies. Most likely, they will be behind a glass window so your child can safely look in as they play with a barrier in between.

The next time you and your child are in a situation where he is fearful of a dog, calm your child by holding him or his hand and acting confidently toward the dog. Ask the owner if it’s okay for you both to meet the dog and offer your hand so that the dog can sniff or lick you.

Do you have suggestions for helping your child face fears?


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