A Mum I Know... The Boy With A Fear Of Dogs
Psychologist, parent consultant and mum, Mish Gittens, shares her clients stories.
Client #29: The boy who loved everything…besides dogs.
A mum I know, Josie, asked me for advice regarding her 6 year old son, let’s call him ‘Jake’, who was petrified of dogs. Big dogs, little dogs, cuddly dogs, sleepy dogs, ones that have a little star, ones that drive a little car ALL THE DOGS. For those of you who own beautiful, intelligent dogs and are thinking ‘Nah, he would love our Henry/Baxter/Toby the Tobemeister because he is so sweet and passive and everyone loves him’ you can stop thinking like that right now. Jake wouldn’t love your dog if it was disguised as an icecream van.
What had started for this mum as an occasional need to ask a friend to keep their dog outside during playdates because her son was getting distressed, had escalated into the 6 year old pleading to never leave the house. ‘I’d like to not go anywhere, ever again, thanks mum.’
When I met with Josie I was relieved to hear she hadn’t gone all Doctor Google on me and labeled Jake with an unqualified diagnosis and tried a variety of ill-advised remedies (like taking him to a dog shelter and letting him loose).
There was no need to use terms like ‘phobia’ at this point but her child was definitely very anxious about dogs, and it was impacting significantly on all of their lives. Josie even had scratch marks from where her son had frantically tried to climb up into her arms when they spotted a dog walking on the path the day before.
Interestingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Josie had developed her own dog anxiety. She had also begun freaking out when she saw a four-legged friend, especially if it was off a lead or in an unexpected area (eg a gated park that had ‘Dogs Prohibited’ signs - come on folks, don’t do stuff like that!!!). Having to deal with Jake’s behaviour in these circumstances had conditioned her to have an immediate stress adrenalin response to dogs, even when her son wasn’t with her.
So this is what we did:
1. Discussed with Jake all the things he did not like about dogs (and he insisted we did another list to include all the things he didn’t like about chickens?!). It was quite a list but can be summed up as the dog’s unpredictable behaviour with the licking, the jumping up, and barking. He was not overly worried about getting attacked – not all anxieties start with a dramatic or traumatic trigger - so we were careful not to suggest it as a possibility. We also made a list of all the things he did like about dogs (and chickens). This was not a long list.
2. Josie bought her son (and older daughter) some reasonably sized soft toy dogs, which we used for role-playing through some situations. The little boy would panic regardless of whether or not a dog was on it’s lead, so the first thing we did was demonstrate how a dog can’t lick or jump while it was on a lead. He would get praise if we could walk past him with the soft dog on a lead and he was able to stay calm. We taught him breathing and distraction techniques as well as pointing out the facts about dogs on leads being unable to leave their owners side. We told him about clever tricks to keep dogs calm like ‘be a tree’ and later on showed him a YouTube video of trainers keeping dogs calm by standing still and keeping arms by sides.
3. The boy was given the ‘responsibility’ to look after the toy dog, grooming it and feeding it bowls of cotton balls and party bag leftovers. He got dog books out from the library and found things he liked about them in the pictures (‘oh they are cute spots’ and ‘I can’t see that one’s eyes!!’).
4. They visited parks where dogs roamed free (just for a few minutes to start with) and stayed in the car (with snacks!). They talked about the dogs they saw (and watched the difference between on-lead and off-lead) but also about other things like the kids having fun on the slide or the shapes in the clouds. At first they kept the windows up, but then wound windows down. They still only got out of the car played in gated parks with no dogs allowed.
5. When the little boy was expected to go to a friend’s house who had a dog, he was responsible for part of the problem solving. He would brainstorm with Josie what might keep him calm and then helped make the phone call to the friend to find out if the dog could be kept outside etc. Clearly the friends-with-dogs had to be completely supportive and realise the fragility of the situation (not just go ‘oh he seems fine now, I will just let Scruffy out the front to say goodbye’ argh!). The most understanding friends would later be used to have their dog on a lead and allow some sniffing time as Jake got used to direct contact.
6. Whenever he was out, Jake could hold mum’s hand or come back to mum whenever he was worried. Mum would say things like ‘you are doing a great job, just stay with me for a bit then I’ll walk you back to the slide’. When they saw a dog, Jake could suggest things like ‘it has brown fur and a red collar. I think its name should be Mr Brownie!’ He initially could ask to be picked up but then was encouraged to stand next to mum and hold hands, then to practice his ‘still like a tree’.
7. We also made a simple storybook about ‘a super brave boy (that happened to have the same name!) who used to be worried about dogs but was slowly getting used to them’ (best book title ever). He loved drawing the pictures and decorating the cover. He could take the book out with him and earn stickers to put on the back of it whenever he did his best ‘being cool’ about canines. We later added pages to the book which outlined what to do if a dog off it’s lead really did come up to him for a lick, or jump up on him.
At the last follow up with the family, Josie’s son had proudly tried all the strategies in the book with the help of understanding dog-owning friends and their sweet, chilled out puppers (big old dogs are usually the best to train with).
Josie worked on her own anxieties separately. Needless to say, after her son stopped the frenzied fits of hysteria and the climbing-up-her-like-she-was-a-mountain-to-conquer every time he spotted a bit of fur in the distance, Josie found it much easier to keep her own stress response under control.
Fortunately they didn’t come across too many chickens during this period but that might be a challenge still to come?!
If you have a little one that is showing signs of animal anxiety, some of these tips might help. Most children go through times when they are worried about certain animals just because they are unsure what will happen when they are near them. Mostly they can just be talked through the situation, or they can avoid it for a wee while, and it doesn’t become much of an issue.
Good luck with your toddler and their dog/cat/chicken worries and see you next time for the mum I know whose toddler thought ‘let’s go to the supermarket’ meant ‘let’s scream louder than a jet plane while I pull down every single box of food off the shelves, blow raspberries at old ladies, go to the toilet in my pants and crush my mother’s last ounce of spirit.’