Most of us know a child who is afraid of dogs. My own daughter, at the age of 4, became so afraid of dogs that she refused to go on playdates or family outings because she was afraid that she might see a dog.
The fear of dogs, aka cynophobia, affects millions of people, many of them children. When it is not addressed, it can significantly impact the child’s social and emotional health. The fear of heights or spiders does not impact kids the same way. It is possible to go through life avoiding these triggers. However, it is virtually impossible to avoid dogs in daily life.
Yet, children who are afraid of dogs will try and avoid them at all costs. Sometimes these kids even put themselves at risk by running into traffic to avoid encountering a dog on a sidewalk or in a park!
It can be hard for dog lovers to imagine someone being afraid of dogs, especially of their own sweet and friendly dog. However, as parents of dogs, it may be helpful to have a better understanding of cynophobia. It is considered an anxiety disorder and the fear is very real for the people who suffer from it. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
There Are Four Ways Fear of Dogs Can Develop:
- Having a direct negative experience with a dog.
- Seeing someone else have a bad experience with a dog.
- Hearing about something negative happening to someone else or getting subtle cues that dogs are dangerous.
- Having a temperament prone to being extra cautious and observant. *In my experience this is by far the most common way. This was the case with my daughter.
***Having multiple positive experiences with dogs often adds a protective layer to the fear developing even if something negative happens – such as a bite or being knocked over.
Teaching Kids About Dogs
We are afraid of things we don’t understand so it’s important to help kids learn how dogs behave and communicate. I call this “dog lessons.” As parents, we teach kids how to look both ways before crossing the street and not to touch a hot stove. However, most parents don’t teach children about dogs and how to know when it’s safe to interact and when it’s best to stay away. We need to teach kids to respect dogs and to educate them about dog body language signals that say “I’m uncomfortable” or “I need space”. In this way children can avoid an unpleasant interaction with a dog, or worse, a dog bite. And, most importantly, tell your child never to run from a dog if they feel afraid because dogs are hardwired to chase things that move.
A great resource for teaching kids about dogs is doggonesafe.com.
The most effective treatment for cynophobia is exposure therapy using a real dog. This can provide children with safe, supervised and positive experiences so that they learn to feel safe and in control around dogs. Exposure therapy starts with more benign and less threatening situations that help an individual confront their fears in a manageable way. The goal is to gradually build the person’s confidence so they can handle more frequent and longer exposures.
When using this technique to treat a child’s fear of dogs, the child’s fears should gradually diminish as their controlled exposure to well-behaved dogs increases. We start with just being near a dog, then touching the dog with one finger and eventually petting the dog with a whole hand for 10 seconds. This can take as little as one session or as many as five or six sessions.
People who face their fear of dogs feel relieved, proud of themselves and can live a fuller life.
About the Author
Stefani M. Cohen, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, mother, grandmother, pet parent and humane educator. When her own daughter was afraid of dogs, many years ago, there were few resources to help Stefani. So, she wrote the book she wished she had back then! Overcoming Your Child’s Fear of Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents is a great resource for anyone who knows someone who is afraid of dogs. It outlines how cynophobia (fear of dogs) develops in children, provides proven techniques to overcome the fear and several chapters on helping kids learn to understand and “read” dogs. The last chapter describes the benefits of the human animal bond and what children can gain from having a relationship with a dog.
If you are looking for ways to help others overcome their fear of dogs:
- Read: Overcoming Your Child’s Fear of Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents (Available on Amazon)
- Visit the website: Overcomefearofdogs.net
- Follow on Facebook (@OvercomeDogFear) and Instagram (@Overcomefearofdogs)
- Listen to the BARKS Podcast with Cynophobia Specialist Stefani Cohen