How to Help Children Overcome Fear of Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker Stefani Cohen developed a protocol to help her own 4-year-old daughter overcome her fear of dogs
  • The 10-step protocol counters much of the misguided advice out there, such as dragging a scared child to a pet store or dog park
  • Keys to success include helping kids understand canine body language and experience feeling in control in the presence of dogs
  • Parents play an essential role in the process and are taught how to respond appropriately to a child’s expression of fear
  • Adults who are afraid of dogs can also conquer their fears through this protocol

Today I'm talking with Stefani Cohen, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who is doing very important work in helping children overcome their fear of dogs. Following are the highlights of our discussion. You can download the full transcript at the link above.

The Inspiration for Stefani's Work Was Her Daughter

Stefani grew up in Connecticut surrounded by horses, guinea pigs, cats and dogs, and has always loved and interacted with animals. So, when her own daughter, at the age of four, developed a fear of dogs, Stefani couldn't believe it.

"I thought maybe I had done something, or she had seen something happen with a dog," says Stefani. "Kids develop fears of lots of things, but with dogs in particular, there are four different ways they become afraid. One is if something happens to them directly, for example, if they got knocked down by a dog or, God forbid, get bitten.

The second way is they see something happen. I had a case in which a little boy, Henry, was knocked over by a dog and his sister Maya saw it happen. Henry was fine, but Maya became afraid of dogs.

The third way is when a child hears of something. I had one little boy whose grandma was from Puerto Rico and used to talk about all the dogs in the street and how afraid she was of them, so the little boy became afraid of dogs.

The fourth way is what occurred with my daughter Becky, a sensitive, observant child who didn't really understand what dogs are about. Fear is born out of not understanding things. So, we helped Becky understand more about dogs."

Stefani's sister's dog, KC, was wonderfully trained and so Stefani introduced KC to little Becky, and helped Becky guide the dog's behavior by asking him to sit and stay. Fear and anxiety stem in part from feelings of not being in control, so what Stefani does is teach kids what dogs are about, and then help them feel in control and safe around dogs.

Teaching Kids How to Read Dog Body Language Is Key

When Stefani sought guidance to help her daughter overcome fear of dogs, she quickly realized there wasn't much good information out there — which is why she decided to develop the protocol she now uses in her work. One of the first things Stefani did was begin using her own dog, in a very controlled and safe way, to work with kids. She fine-tuned her protocol over time and formalized it.

There are 10 steps to the protocol, many of which counteract the bad advice out there already, such as taking a fearful child to a pet store or dog park right out of the gate.

"This type of approach can often backfire," Stefani explains, "if you don't understand the nature of the child's fear, or if you don't go slowly, or if you don't educate kids about dog body language, which is a very important part of my method. We teach kids about dogs and how to stay safe around them, so they feel safe."

I asked Stefani how quickly she saw progress once she began working with her daughter Becky. She replied that it happened quite fast. They were visiting Stefani's sister in California for five days, and by the fifth day, "KC and Becky were the best of friends."

However, the time varies depending on the situation. "When I work with children, it's an average of three to four sessions," says Stefani. "It can take as many as six, and some kids are fine after the second. Every child is different."

I wondered if Becky's newfound confidence around KC extended to other dogs. Stefani said it did, but it took time.

"What we observed is that as she learned more, she felt more empowered, and she felt confident," Stefani explains. "We gave her permission to say, 'Please, leash your dog.'

Whereas before, Becky would refuse to go on play dates if there was a dog around, with coaching she learned to ask, 'Can you leash your dog till I come in the house?' We also kind of turned her into a detective. As we came across unfamiliar dogs, we would encourage her to read their body language by studying their tail position, their walk, their stance, and other signals.

I found some wonderful resources for dog body language and bite prevention and had her study it, and then we took it out into the world, and she felt safe knowing what to do.

We teach kids how to cross the street, we teach them to stay away from the stove, and we teach them to stop, drop and roll if there's a fire. They're going to come across dogs in their daily life — hopefully much more often than fires — and they need information on the best way to respond."

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Guiding Parents in the Best Way to Help Their Fearful Children

Parents also often need help to understand their child's fear and what to do about it. During therapy sessions, Stefani emphasizes with parents that all feelings are fine — they're not good or bad — they're just feelings.

"When a child says they're afraid," she explains, "it's very important to say 'Thank you for telling me. I'm going to help you with this.' I have a fear scale I use. With young children, the scale is simply small, medium, or big.

With older children, we do a number scale from 1 to 10. In therapy sessions and in their everyday lives, when they encounter a dog, they're asked to use the scale when asked 'How scared do you feel right now'?"

Depending on the child's response, Stefani teaches them deep breathing and other coping skills, such as politely asking the owner to leash the dog. If a dog approaches and the child feels nervous, she learns she can turn sideways, cross her arms and look away from the dog, and the dog will walk away.

"I've worked with children who are so afraid, that when a dog approaches, they may run into traffic to avoid it," says Stefani. "So, it's really important they have coping skills."

Because Stefani's niche is quite rare in the field of clinical social work, she gets lots of referrals. In addition, she's written a book to be published soon that details her protocol. Parents and therapists will be able to use her formalized method to understand a child's fear, acknowledge and support them, and expose them to a safe, predictable dog.

"My ultimate goal is to help kids feel safe and comfortable with dogs and enjoy them the way you and I do, and my kids do," says Stefani. "In the meantime, if they can just get comfortable enough to be in proximity to dogs, it's enough.

And I like to encourage parents to use phrases like, 'We're working on being more comfortable around dogs instead of 'We're working on getting over the fear.' Because every time you say 'fear,' it goes into the brain. It gets imprinted. I like to put it more in a positive way.

I've seen it time and time again. When a child is afraid of dogs, it impacts the entire family. When they overcome that fear, the sense of competence and empowerment and bravery they feel is just remarkable. I actually have a superhero cape that I let kids wear once they've completed the exercises. They get a certificate and they put on the superhero cape and their smiles and sense of relief really makes it all worthwhile."

caped child

Adults Can Also Learn to Overcome Their Fear of Dogs

The mother of a close friend of mine was bitten by a dog when she was a child. She's 80 now, and she still has a physical response at even the mention of a dog. She visibly tightens up. That's why it's so important to help kids who are afraid of dogs. Otherwise, they can spend their entire lives traumatized, never overcoming their fear. I asked Stefani if adults who are fearful of dogs can be helped.

"Sure," she replied. "The same approach works with adults. And it's usually a little easier because you can have conversations with them about it — you can discuss where the fear originated and how they're feeling. It's a little more sophisticated. I worked with a woman from another country who had seen a lot of dogs, was petrified of them, and didn't want to transfer her fear to her own children.

So, I brought my therapy dog Fozzie over to her house, and I think she wanted to prove to herself and also show her children how brave she was. Fozzie was in a 'down stay,' entirely non-threatening, and I had control of him. The woman reached out to pet him and started to cry with relief.

Part of my protocol is teaching people how to greet a dog, and when to stay away. They need information and education about how to stay safe. Just as you don't touch a hot stove, you don't pet a dog that looks hurt or scared."

Finding the Right Dogs for the Work

One of the most important aspects of the work Stefani does is choosing the right dogs to work with. In her upcoming book, she has included a resource section that lists national therapy dog groups. In addition, most communities have at least one therapy dog group that visits libraries, schools, nursing homes, and so forth. The book also includes a checklist of characteristics a dog should have, as well as tips for handlers.

"I'm a bit of a control freak," Stefani says, "so it does make me a little nervous that I don't have control of that part of the protocol. But I've tried to give as much information as possible so that it goes smoothly."

The title of Stefani's soon-to-be-published book is "Overcoming Your Child's Fear of Dogs – A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents," and it will be available on her website at this link as well as other online booksellers like Amazon.

Many thanks to Stefani for joining me today. She has blended her love of dogs with her passion to help others, while also filling an important void in the world of social work that benefits not only fearful kids and adults, but our canine companions as well. I'm so thankful for the tremendous contribution she's making!

"Thank you so much," says Stefani. "I think it's really important to keep kids safe and help them love dogs."