My seven-year old daughter is PETRIFIED of dogs even though she has never been bitten or attacked. It can be a tea cup Chihuahua or a Great Dane, the result is the same-- she freezes and screams. We have explained that dogs bark to communicate or jump because they want to play, but none of this gets through to her. It has affected our family life as we have many friends we can't see because they have pets.
Children sometimes develop unreasonable phobias. Here are some ideas that may help your daughter:
• Visit a local pet store. When kids don't know if a dog will try to lick their face or push them over, they feel out of control. Letting your daughter watch puppies from behind a barrier will help her feel safe, while helping desensitize her to their wiggly, unpredictable movements.
• Acknowledge your daughter's fear without turning on MOM TV--reacting with hysterics that will only make things worse. Be matter of fact about her worries-- "I understand that you're scared of the doggie"-- without adding your own drama to the mix.
• Narrate her experience to lessen her panic. "That doggie is making loud noises and it's making you nervous." Or, "Jo-Jo is jumping around a lot--you get shaky when he moves so fast." By helping language what your daughter is experiencing, you'll make it easier for her to express what she's feeling--"I'm really scared right now, Mommy"--instead of having an emotional meltdown.
• Offer reassurance."I understand you are afraid. I will stay right by you." Be supportive, without judging, shaming or scolding your daughter. And don't invalidate her experience by saying things like, "There's nothing to be afraid of." That simply conveys that you don't have a clue about what it feels like to live inside her skin.
• Reach out to a therapy dog organization which may be able to locate a canine in your area who has undergone extensive training to be calm around visitors. You may also help desensitize her by taking her around a very settled, older dog--one who has proven to be very mellow and easy-going, and isn't likely to make unpredictable moves.
• Role play. Use her stuffed animal dogs to act out situations that your child finds frightening.
• Model a confident attitude when you approach someone with a dog. Rather than asking, "Is it safe to pet your dog?" or "Does she bite?" pose neutral questions like "Can we meet your dog?" Tell your daughter that dogs like to sniff and lick people to get to know them, and let her watch you interact in a gentle and respectful way first.
• Toys and treats: Let your daughter toss a special toy or treat to a dog you know to be sweet and friendly, while it is held on a leash or behind a safety gate. This will gently establish a relationship between them that allows her to feel in charge, while comfortably enjoying the dog's excitement and delight.
Every child comes with a unique temperament. Some embrace the unexpected antics of animals, while others are profoundly rattled by the unpredictability of animals. Try these ideas, take it slow, and your daughter should gradually become more comfortable with dogs. Best of luck!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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