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Canine Concerns: How to Help Children Who Fear Dogs

Children entertain a host of fears, so apprehension toward large dogs and other animals is common. For every child that is fearful of dogs, however, a larger population overcomes initial reluctance and confident kids quickly want their own pet. If you’re thinking about getting a dog but are reluctant due to your child’s fear of canines, help them overcome it with the following advice.

Tell Them It’s Okay to Be Afraid

Whether you believe there’s a good ‘reason’ for your child to be afraid or not, it’s important to let them know you recognize their fear and it’s okay to be afraid. The first step is to observe your child has a fear and that you understand. Once the child feels comfortable they begin to overcome fear with the help of others. Being told their fear is ‘silly’ or ‘babyish’ will make the child feel less confident and more isolated. Earn their trust by recognizing their fear, then they will feel more confident listening to advice about how they can overcome their apprehension.

Understand Dogs Are Fearful Too

Most dogs ‘show their teeth’ as a defense mechanism. They would rather avoid a dangerous encounter, so they try to deter humans and other animals with signals they are uncomfortable. Tell your child that some dogs are also fearful and apprehensive. Remind children it’s important to let dogs know they mean no harm, allowing the dog to sniff their hand or to be slow in approaching a canine.

Start Slow and Then Repeat

Perhaps your child is fearful due to an isolated event - an aggressive dog knocked them over years ago. Start easing your child’s anxiety by bringing them around a trusted dog and eventually around more canines, even to the pound for additional exposure. Condition your child to trust dogs; the more positive experiences they have around dogs, the less fearful the child becomes. Graduate interactions by having the child play with the dog by making the canine fetch a toy or dog Christmas ornaments.

Watch Your Language

Choose your words wisely while encouraging an apprehensive child. For example, by saying, “The dog doesn’t bite,” you remind the child of their fear despite the intention of the message. Rather than focus speech on what the dog doesn’t like, say “Fido likes it when you pet him behind his tail.” Such a sentiment is more encouraging versus “Fido will snap at you if you touch him on his nose so don’t do that.”

Humanize the Dog

It doesn’t take long for people to treat a family dog or those of others like humans. Humanize a dog by reminding the child of proper manners. For example, you wouldn’t expect a positive interaction if you walked up to another and yanked on their hair, so avoid pulling a dog’s tail. Remind the child that good manners are rewarded when interacting with other people and dogs alike.

Sean Terry has worked for a number of years in a veterinary practice. He enjoys sharing his thoughts on all matters canine as well as pet ownership in general. You can find his thoughts on other sites that aim to provide information and advice on all aspects of caring for your pets.