How to Overcome Children’s Fear of Dogs?

Fear is natural for people and everyone has their own fears. While someone is scared of spiders, heights or confined spaces, others are scared of dogs. This fear is common in children who haven’t explored the world so well yet and who don’t know the whole picture. How should you deal with this and how to help them overcome their fear? We discussed it with Hana Maršálková, a dog trainer from Psí akademie Dance and Jump (a dog academy). 

What can be the source of kids’ fear of dogs?
We, as people, aren’t alike. We are born with some character which means a different approach to self-esteem, courage and fearfulness. Over time, we acquire experience. Some people might be spooked because a dog behind a fence barked at them surprisingly and some people consider dogs to be great friends to go for walks with or to cuddle with on the sofa. So our relationship to dogs, whether it’s positive or negative, is influenced by our character and our experience. 

Should parents try to overcome their fear or should they let nature take its course?
Parents have a key role in the development of their children’s relationship to dogs as well as other animals. Children naturally imitate their parents’ behaviour, so they are the best help in teaching kids how not to be afraid of dogs and how to treat them. If a family has a dog and even trains it, the kid will acquire these skills in the most natural way. On the other hand, if parents are scared of dogs, children will probably lack a role model that would show them this fear is not necessary. In such case, a kid is not socialized with dogs. 

What approach can be taken if parents are afraid of dogs?
If parents are afraid of dogs, I recommend getting in touch with an experienced person (for example a dog trainer or a dog breeder) and asking for help. In my opinion, any trainer is happy to see the family are fighting their fears and will gladly assist and explain how to treat a dog. (S)he will teach them to read dogs’ body language and the family will understand everything better. I definitely don’t recommend parents who are afraid of dogs to try on their own. 

Is it a good idea to keep a child in contact with dogs if it is scared of them?
It is, but in a non-violent, gradual manner. It’s important to let the kid choose how close it wants to get to a dog, if it wants to touch the animal or offer it a treat. I definitely recommend being in contact with a dog more often and trying to solve the kid’s fear during the first contact. There should be someone experienced present and a dog should be well chosen. It should have a calmer nature and like kids, its size doesn’t matter. 

How to proceed in a case there is a dog in a household and the kid is afraid of it?
In such case, some problematic situation involving the kid and the dog usually already happened. For example, a dog bothers a kid by jumping or pinching or a kid has done something to a dog and the dog fought back or something similar. Here, an individual approach based on the specific situation is needed. Setting rules (training) for a dog and patient approach to a kid are necessary. Dealing with the situation shouldn’t be postponed because we don’t want any other incident between the child and the dog to occur and the kid’s fear to deepen.

Can fear of dogs be overcome by, for example, books and pictures or a face-to-face contact with an animal is the only way?
A theory might be helpful and pictures and talking about dogs might arise the kid’s curiosity and the desire to get to know the animal in person. However, meeting the animal is better. A kid needs to know how the dog reacts and to what it reacts. It will see the dog jumping, running, barking or eating from a bowl and it might help it to get rid of the fear. It can also try to communicate more with the dog, caress it, talk to it, give it a biscuit. Thanks to these interactions, the kid will be more courageous and it will get more experience.  Over time, fear will turn to euphoria and enthusiasm. 

What role do parents’ concerns have? Can excessive protectiveness influence the kid’s attitude to dogs?
Protectiveness is good quality but it needs to be reasonable. It’s great to have kids close anytime a dog is around. A kid and a dog should never be alone, not even if they are used to each other. Underestimating a situation might result in a conflict and it might be the cause of fear. On the other hand, if parents are too protective, they might be the reason why a kid is afraid of dogs. 

What role does a kid’s age play in overcoming its fear? Is it true that the sooner it has a relationship with animals, the better?
Of course, it’s good if a kid meets dogs from an early age. However, I personally believe in something I call “thee dog gene”. I use this expression when I see a person who is talented in communication and working with a dog. Such a person usually has empathy and has a kind of dog eyes. Even a person who started working with dogs as an adult can have this “dog gene”. And on the contrary, some people might be scared and sceptical when they are around dogs throughout their lives and they will never really understand them.

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