Hi Dr Justin,
My 6yr old daughter has a major anxiety with dogs. We did see the school counselor in Prep, however I am not sure if I should start seeing a Psychologist. Everyone tells me she will out grow this fear and we will be getting a puppy next year to hopefully help her. Is there anything else I could do?
People, including children, have all kinds of fears that others see as irrational and entirely strange. Some young children are afraid of animals, especially dogs, who are fast, often large (though little ones can be scary too), unpredictable, and have no recognition of personal space.
When anxieties and fears cause genuine distress and interrupt normal functioning then it is appropriate to seek help.
Here are a couple of ideas you might find helpful:
Consider the overall importance
Does it really matter if your daughter is afraid of dogs? It may cause some minor inconvenience from time to time, but if you live in a neighbourhood where there aren’t many dogs (inner city?), or if your daughter can live a happy life and avoid dogs, it may not be worth trying to increase her comfort level. Of course, it might also be important because of ongoing exposure to dogs.
Trying to toughen up a child who has anxiety is often ineffective and counter-productive. Trying to convince her to ‘come over here and pat the cute puppy’ will only reinforce her fear.
By being compassionate, trying to see the world through her eyes, and showing her you understand her fear (or are trying to), she will be more likely to stay calm, and be open to learning more about managing her fears.
Mind your message
The words you share can either reduce or reinforce your daughter’s fears. If you find yourself regularly discussing her fear of dogs, she will identify with that as an aspect of her identity; she will see herself as someone with a fear of dogs. It is better to talk about the process that describes how your daughter is becoming more comfortable with dogs as she gets older.
Additionally, when you speak about dogs, be aware that your words can raise her anxiety. Acknowledging that some dogs bite or are scary, while true, may drive her fear further. Instead it’s best to recognise that most dogs are friendly and happy.
Force will lead to resistance
Don’t try and force her to get over the anxiety. Doing so will make her feel more anxious, not just about the dog, but also about the way she feels. And the more you try to convince her that she’s being irrational, or that her behaviour is unnecessary, the more defensive she’ll become.
This means that you need to teach your child what to expect from a dog. They sniff. They have wet noses. Some lick. You need to check to see if it’s ok before you go near a dog (although this may not be such an issue in your case).
Explicit teaching about how to behave around dogs will be reassuring for your daughter and help her understand their behaviour better.
Some psychologists may assist in helping overcome this fear through careful exposure therapy. If the issue is a major concern for your family, this would be my central recommendation.
Don’t get a dog
There is a common thought that getting a dog will be great for helping to get your daughter used to dogs. While this may work in some situations, a child who is genuinely fearful of dogs will usually not do well, particularly if the dog you choose is a puppy. The dog will be present all the time. A young dog will be energetic, bouncy, perhaps even nippy. It will not respect or understand her needs for space, and will likely cause trauma for your daughter and your family. It’s too much too soon.
Your best course of action is to seek help, and to keep conversations around dogs kind, patient, empathic, and positive. Gentle exposure to predictable, safe dogs, over time, may eventually see the anxiety in your daughter reduce.