Fear is a terrible thing and if you have never experienced real fear, it can be quite hard to comprehend it in other people. I don’t like spiders. I used to think I was afraid of them, but experience has shown me that I simply don’t like them and that is all. My husband is afraid of cats. Really afraid. I love cats and I couldn’t ever really understand how someone could be scared of something so cute and I did laugh at him about it. That was mean looking back as I realise now that his fear runs far deeper, it isn’t just a mild dislike as is proven by his extreme reactions when he comes close to a cat. His is a genuine fear and now I am seeing it again with my daughter and dogs.
We aren’t really an ‘animal family’ and we have never had any pets and not many of our friends or family have dogs, so all of my children have had a fear of dogs when they were young. Personally, I never worried about it as I think that being wary of dogs isn’t a bad thing and not having had any real experience with dogs, fear was quite natural.
All three boys grew out of it and happily went to friends’ houses where there were dogs and I thought that my daughter would be the same. It soon became clear that she was not. When she started school, it started to be a problem as there are lots of families with dogs and she would be so scared some days, I couldn’t even get her through the gate to go home. There would be screaming whenever she was in a situation where a dog would come close to her. She wouldn’t go to friend’s houses if she knew they had a dog. Even once loved visits to the park became a rarity because she was too afraid to go in case there might be a dog there.
I must admit that I did sometimes get a little frustrated with her. I would repeatedly reassure her that there was nothing to worry about and on the odd occasion that I would get cross with her. Cross and frustrated because this fear was starting to affect her daily life. Her distress levels were so high at times and I could feel her heart beating so quickly that I knew that this was something serious and that we needed some help. A few months later, when she ran out in front of a car to avoid a dog, this was reinforced and I began to scour the internet for help and advice.
When you have a child with a fear of dogs, I discovered that dog owners usually act in one of two ways. Some would look at me as if I was a mad woman when I would pick her up or shield her from a dog. Others, out of kindness, seem to automatically head in your direction with their dogs telling you that their dogs are perfectly friendly and why doesn’t your child come and stroke them. It is really nice of them and very well-meaning but with a genuinely scared child, it is the worst possible thing.
So what was the answer? I knew that trying to get her near a dog was going to cause more upset than it would help. Then I chatted with a friend who said that it was a case of very slowly trying to desensitise her. She suggested showing her photos of dogs and sent me some photos of her lovely dog, maybe watching videos of dogs and listening to videos of dogs barking and then when my daughter felt ready, she could go and see a dog, slowly building up to get closer each visit until maybe she would be able to stroke it.
It sounded plausible but my daughter was unconvinced. She was okay looking at photos but the thought of getting close to a dog reduced her to tears but she was happy to look at pictures and talk about the dogs, so that was a start.
Then another friend flagged up a local news story she had seen on Facebook. It was about a boy a few years older that my daughter who had done a course with the Dogs Trust Evesham and had overcome his fear of dogs. Within minutes I had emailed Dogs Trust Evesham and asked if this was something we could do as it sounded perfect. The response came back quickly and a phone call later, our first session was booked in.
I’m not sure who was more excited about the sessions, me or my daughter. For me, it was the relief of maybe finding some help and support with a fear that had taken over our lives and was stopping my daughter enjoy the freedom of going out without worry. For my daughter, it was exciting and also she wanted to overcome her fear, she just didn’t know how.
The Building Confidence Around Dogs course is one of many courses that are run by the Dogs Trust Education team and much of their work involves going into schools and teaching children about what it takes to be a responsible dog owner and how to stay safe around dogs. The Building Confidence Around Dogs course was exactly what we needed with six sessions. The first few to be held in our local library and the aim was to have the final session at the Dogs Trust Centre if she felt ready. Each session was just us and the Dogs Trust Education Officer and incredibly, the sessions were free.
Each session lasted around 40 minutes and it was all done in a really interesting way. We set targets for what A wanted to achieve throughout the course and this was all lead by her and what she wanted. There were games, videos, fun and interactive activities all geared towards giving my daughter not only strategies to help her cope better with her fear, but also to understand more about dogs and signs to watch out for and to generally get to know more about dogs.
We learnt a lot from the sessions and in between, as advised, we tried to watch programs, films and video clips of dogs (the Dogs Trust YouTube channel was perfect for this) and also read stories with dogs in and they gave us a list with lots of ideas on. In between the sessions, we tried to use the calming strategies that we had been shown such as turning away and crossing your arms across your chest (which is called the X factor) so that you would be so boring that the dog wouldn’t be interesting. We also practised deep breathing and how it helped to calm our bodies down when we were afraid.
We filled in a diary sheet in between the sessions of all of the times we saw a dog and how A felt and reacted and after one session where we talked about turning negative thoughts into positive ones (such as ‘oh no there’s a dog’ became ‘there’s a dog but it is on a lead so it’s ok.’) and we also kept a record of examples where we had used this strategy.
I learnt a lot from the sessions too. I realised that sometimes I don’t help the situation because I panic when we see a dog as I know how she will react. This is something I try not to do now. I try and stay calm and often won’t even alert her to the dog as sometimes she will walk by without even seeing it. If she does, I remind her of the breathing and to look for leads or other reasons why the dog won’t be a problem. Staying calm is the key and if she doesn’t feel confident, I don’t make a fuss I just wait until she is ready or the dog has gone.
The fifth session took place in a park where lots of dog owners walk their dogs. In the past, we would not have got our daughter anywhere near the field yet she happily went and played even with dogs off the lead in the field. It was amazing. When we talked about the last session being at the Dogs Trust Centre, she said that she was a bit worried but it was something she wanted to do.
And she did. She was very nervous going in but as she could see the dogs were either behind glass or fences, she soon relaxed and in the end, she was going to look at the dogs on her own. It was incredible to watch. It was also amazing to see behind the scenes at a Dogs Trust centre, seeing the gorgeous dogs there and the incredible facilities and the hard work that goes into making sure all of the dogs are well looked after.
She is not cured. The fear is still there and maybe always will be but what she has now is in control. She is armed with knowledge about dogs and signs to look for to reassure her that the dog is happy or friendly. She also has strategies to cope when she sees a dog and understands that screaming and running will just make a dog want to chase her. She tries to turn any negative feelings into positive. I am so incredibly proud of her and it is lovely to see her going outside and to parks again with more confidence and less anxiety.
I am so grateful to the Dogs Trust. The Education Officer was amazing. She totally understands why children are afraid and she was so kind and funny that my daughter was completely at ease with her. She made the sessions really fun and interesting and the way she helped to change my daughter’s way of thinking about dogs was really brilliant. We have an open invitation to go back to the centre anytime and they can offer further support and help if needed but I think we are ready to tackle A’s fear now on our own, armed with our strategies and a new way of thinking.
I know that my daughter is not alone in her fear. Quite a few people have told me similar stories and there are many adults with the same problem too. The Dogs Trust have lots of information and resources on their website and to find out more strategies to help manage a child who is scared of dogs, there is lots here including a handy leaflet that you can download.
For us, day to day is better. She will skip ahead of us when we are out and about now without that constant worry stopping her and she now automatically gives me a positive comment about the dog such as it being on the lead, or it is distracted by something else. This is such huge progress and even though she is not ready to go near a dog or stroke one, she does want to and eventually that is our aim. Who knows, we may even get a dog of our own.