My son of two and a half has suddenly become afraid of dogs. He will begin to panic and cling to me when one even walks past him. We only see dogs when we are out in the street or park. No one close to us owns a dog so I am not sure where the fear has come from. Are there ways to help him overcome this fear or will he just grow out of it?
It is not just children who are afraid of dogs. Some adults can be wary if they have had little exposure or a bad experience. Your son’s behaviour is entirely understandable.
Dogs can seem particularly scary to a small child since a dog will be more physically threatening – after all a dog’s face is probably at a similar level to your son’s head. Many children grow out of this fear as they grow in size and learn to understand the behaviour of animals. However, it would be nice for both you and your son if you are able to help him manage his fear.
Ideally, you could ask a friend with a really trustworthy dog whether you would be able to introduce your son to their pet in a relaxed and friendly environment. Puppies are not usually the best introduction, since they are more liable to jump up and play-nip, which will only increase your child’s fear of dogs. A well-behaved dog of about two, which is accustomed to the behaviour of a small child, is ideal. Once your son is comfortable in the presence of this dog, you could ask him “Do you want to feel his silky fur?” If he does, you should hold him close to you and guide his hand gently over the dog, well away from the dog’s face. If he is at all frightened or draws back just say “It’s ok, you don’t have to stroke the dog” and move him away. Simply being in the same room or garden with a dog that shows little interest in your son will help to reassure him.
Your son is old enough to understand that most dogs are friendly and reliable; however, it is sensible for him to be cautious of dogs that he doesn’t know. Do not encourage him to approach dogs when you are out and about as a dog jumping up or barking at him will increase his fear. Help him to understand the behaviour of dogs in the park by explaining what they are doing, e.g. “Look, that dog is chasing a pigeon”. “Look at that funny little dog running after a ball”. In time your son will feel more comfortable with the behaviour of dogs.
Introduce toy dogs into your games and find stories that he enjoys where dogs are featured. Get him used to the idea that, on the whole, dogs are friendly rather than threatening and can give a lot pleasure to people. Once he is used to thinking in this way about “pretend” dogs he may be more willing to get used to the real kind.