How to help a child with a fear of dogs

Toby has been scared of dogs since he was not much over two, probably since he started walking further outside and encountered a lot of dogs – and some of them were bigger than him! His fear seems to have phases where it gets better and worse. At the moment we’re going through a fairly good patch but I thought it might be useful to share some of the ways we have helped Toby with his fear of dogs.

How to help a child with a fear of dogs

First of all I should probably admit that I’m not the biggest fan of dogs myself. I’m allergic to most of them and have been since childhood so I’ve always tended to give them a wide berth. I’m not scared of dogs, I just don’t like them very much, but I really hope that Toby hasn’t picked up anything from me that has added to his fear.

When Toby was two and first started being scared of dogs he would cry when one came near, and want to be picked up. And so that’s what we did. I don’t believe in forcing a child to do something they are scared of, so no matter how many well meaning dog owners stopped and tried to get Toby to approach their dog, if he didn’t want to then it wasn’t going to happen.

The main thing we always do when we see a dog is to reassure Toby that he is safe, that we will look after him, we won’t let the dog come near him. We point out if the dog is on a lead, or if it isn’t then can usually show him that the owner has the dog under control if they ask him to sit, or heel for example.

For the first year or so we would pretty much just pick Toby up and reassure him until the dog had gone, or until we had passed them. But after we moved back to England when Toby was three his fear seemed to ramp up to another level and he would literally be paralysed with fear and almost start hyperventilating whenever a dog came anywhere near us. Where we live there are a lot of dogs, and trying to cope Toby panicking every time we saw a dog, and with Gabe as well it was getting unmanageable. So we came up with a few more strategies to try and help him control his fear.

The first thing we tried, to try and help him to stay calm was to get him to start slowly counting as soon as he saw a dog, and we would keep counting together until the dog was gone, or we had moved away from it ourselves. This did help to a point – especially if it was just someone walking with a dog in the opposite direction to us. But if there was a big dog, or a dog barking then counting just wasn’t enough.

We then tried making a magic circle round him whenever we left the house to go somewhere where we might see a lot of dogs. I would just walk round him in a circle one way then the other and that’s what created the ‘magic’. Again this was working quite well until we had a setback a few months ago. There’s a path that runs along the edge of the fields between our house and the town. We were all walking along there, we had seen a couple of dogs but were doing OK then Toby managed to fall over and graze his knee. So he was upset anyway, and then we walked past a big house near Toby’s school – it has a high wall with big gates in, and sometimes there are two very big, very loud dogs there. They really barked and growled at us as we walked past and because Toby was already upset he couldn’t deal with.

After that we were almost back to square one. We tried the counting and magic circle again but they just weren’t working as well any more. And then one day we were walking with Gabe in the buggy, we saw a dog and I got Toby to come behind the buggy with me so he could be protected by the ‘buggy shield’. And for the last few months that has been what has worked for us.

For now, there is no drama, no panic, no tears – Toby just comes behind the buggy until the dog is gone. We haven’t come across many dogs when we haven’t had the buggy so I’m not quite sure how we’ll go on then. Having said that we went out for lunch with my brother in Hebden Bridge a couple of weekends ago and there was a couple with a dog sitting at the next table. It was on a lead and luckily didn’t bark while we were there. Toby was a bit apprehensive but instead of a buggy shield we had an ‘uncle Mark shield’ sitting between him and the dog and he was fine.

A lot of people have suggested finding someone we know who has a friendly dog, and trying to get Toby used to that dog to help him overcome his fear. To be honest I’m not sure that will work at the moment – for a start we don’t really know anyone with a friendly dog, and secondly I really think it wouldn’t take much to set him back. However, one of Toby’s friends from school has a dog, and they live very near us. The friend has been to our house to play after school and Toby wanted to go to his house. So last week we went after school, I stayed with Gabe too. The dog was in its crate in the utility room and Toby was fine. It helped that we hardly knew the dog was there, but I’m hoping that if he can go there a few more times and realise he is OK in the same house as a dog, then that might help too.

There is one thing though I feel I have to add to this post – if you are a dog owner and when you are out with your dog you happen to see a child who is clearly terrified, then please, please keep your dog close either until the child has passed or until you have moved on. The number of times I have been out with Toby, he has been clinging onto me with fear, often crying or clearly panicking, and a dog owner has stopped right by us asking if Toby wants to say hello to the dog. I understand this is well-meant but for both me and Toby all it is doing is prolonging the pain and the fear.

One thing I am thankful for is that, so far at least, Gabe has not picked up on Toby’s fear at all, or if he has he’s not been affected by it. I’m hoping that Toby will continue to improve and that eventually being near dogs won’t be an issue for him. Somebody mentioned to me that the Dog’s Trust run courses to help people who have a fear of dogs so that is something we may well look at if it’s still a problem in a few years.

Do you have any experience of a fear of dogs? I would love to know how you coped with it whether it was your own fear, or that of children if it has affected you or your family.


This is the sixteenth post in my #Blogtober series – you can read the rest of the posts here.

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