How to overcome a fear of dogs in just four steps

Even if you don't own a dog, their abundance can make it tough for children who are afraid of them. Clearwater child psychologist Ruth Peters sees this firsthand when her cocker spaniel, Annie, greets patients when they enter her waiting room.

"We've certainly had some kids jump," said Peters who has treated children with all sorts of phobias using what psychologists call "successive approximations."

The good news is, it doesn't take a therapist to fix it. You can see improvement in a matter of weeks if you take some time — about three times a week for 10 minutes at a time— to work on it. But the onus is on the parent to address the problem. Without intervention, it can become a real quality-of-life problem for a kid who has to cut off play dates for friends with pets.

Here's the doctor's prescription:

Step one: Have a neighbor with a friendly little dog help you. Start by taking a walk to their house and looking at the dog, which is safely behind a fence. If even this gets a child upset, use the yoga breathing technique (in deeply through the nose, then out through the mouth) to calm him. Shorten the distance to the fence a few feet at each visit.

Step two: After visiting the dog from a distance two or three times a week, get to the point where you can walk up close to the fence. Encourage your child to develop camaraderie with the dog. Bring treats.

Step three: After developing a through-the-fence relationship, have the neighbor hold the dog and stand there talking casually. Sometimes parents' own discomfort with dogs can be the source of this problem, Peters said, so watch your body language. Gradually work toward getting the child to pet the dog while the neighbor is holding it. Be careful not to go too far; this is a gradual process.

Step four: Once the child is comfortable around the neighbor's dog, take some walks in the neighborhood, look for friendly dogs of all sizes and teach the child about safety, asking owners for permission to pet a dog.

With consistency, this fear can be overcome, but it also requires maintenance, Peters said. Make a point of seeing a dog about once a month to reinforce the lessons learned.

Though some people are paralyzed by a fear for their entire life, psychologists say the typical time it takes to treat and eliminate a phobia is less than 10 hours.

How to overcome a fear of dogs in just four steps 02/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 3:30am]

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