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How to Overcome Childrens' Fear of Dogs

Stefani Cohen's book "Overcoming Your Child's Fear of Dogs" is a brilliant read.

 Jenny Uhling, Pexels (Canva Germany GmbH)
Jenny Uhling, Pexels (Canva Germany GmbH)

Numerous children have contact with dogs either by choice or circumstance. I receive many queries from people wanting to know how to help their children overcome their fear of dogs and was thrilled to learn about LCSW therapist Stefani Cohen's book (with contributions from Cathy Malkin) called Overcoming Your Child's Fear of Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents, in which she uses exposure therapy and her Overcoming Fear of Dogs (OFOD) protocol to gradually increase a child's exposure to a real dog and thereby decrease the child's fear and resistance. Here's what she had to say about her easy-to-read book from which I learned an incredible amount about this topic.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Overcoming Your Child’s Fear of Dogs?

Stefani Cohen: I wanted to share what I have learned over the past few decades. Having helped numerous people face their fear of dogs, I realized I had something that really worked. I know how debilitating it can be to live with cynophobia and that living with the fear is harder than facing it.

MB: How does your book relate to your background?

SC: The book is a combination of several parts of my life: parent, psychotherapist and dog lover. As a parent, I experienced my own daughter being afraid of dogs. This was many years ago and she would refuse to go on play dates, visit her grandmother and even avoid playgrounds if she thought she might encounter a dog. This fear caused her great distress and impacted our entire family.1

As a psychotherapist, I understood anxiety and exposure therapy and I have a good understanding of child development and parenting concerns.

MB: Who do you hope to reach?

SC: Although the book is titled as a parenting guide, it is appropriate and can easily be adapted for mental health practitioners, dog professionals, educators, veterinarians, therapy dog teams, individuals who are afraid of dogs and basically anyone who wants to help someone face their fear of dogs.

MB: What are some of the major topics you consider?

SC: The fear of dogs is a common animal phobia and can range from mild to debilitating. Cynophobia affects up to 20% of all people and the DSM-5 lists it under anxiety disorders and specific animal phobias.

I cover the basics of how cynophobia develops, what exposure therapy is and how to apply it to the fear of dogs. I have a questionnaire that helps people gain a better understanding of their own specific fear and how it developed. For example, many people don’t want a dog to look at them. So, during early exposure sessions, we are careful to keep the dog focused on the handler or treats so the person can relax and see they are safe. We work up to the person being able to tolerate the dog looking at them. We explain that the dog wants to see who is petting them.

We are afraid of things we don’t understand so I have a big educational component and help people learn to “read” dogs. Many parents underestimate the importance of teaching kids to be respectful and thoughtful when interacting with dogs.

I have a chapter on why it is so important to face this fear rather than try and avoid dogs. If you are afraid of spiders or heights you can still live a pretty normal life. However, dogs are everywhere and they are impossible to avoid if you want to leave your house. One gains so much by facing the fear. It is emotionally freeing and empowering to be able to make plans and not have your first thought be, “Will there be any dogs?” I have witnessed the relief, sense of pride and accomplishment people feel when they realize they can safely interact with dogs and not panic at the sight of them.2

My 10-step exposure therapy protocol is outlined in detail. This starts with looking at pictures and videos of dogs and scaffolds up to interacting with a safe and dependable dog. The exercises are broken into three types — touch, proximity and interaction. An example of a touch exercise would be petting the dog with one finger and working up to petting with a whole hand for a count of 20. Proximity exercises include being near a dog and taking deep breaths to reduce the fight/flight/freeze response and noting three different things about the dog. We also practice standing still while a leashed dog walks past you. Interaction can include cueing the dog to sit or giving them a treat. For those who are squeamish, we sometimes put a treat on a plate.

Perhaps the most helpful suggestion I can give people who are uncomfortable around dogs is to “stand still, turn sideways, cross their arms across their chest and look away from the dog. I remind people that dogs are hardwired to chase things that move (think squirrel, tennis ball etc.) In dog language when you take this stance you are telling a dog you are not interested and they should leave you alone. I do this myself at the off-leash beach when exuberant dogs approach me.

Fear is a feeling of being out of control so I try and help people feel more in control by teaching them this stance. When you have a plan and know what to do you will feel less afraid. I also give some suggestions on how to find a helper dog for the exposure sessions. Therapy dog teams working in conjunction with a mental health professional is ideal, but not crucial. There are additional chapters focused on safety around dogs, how dogs communicate and the benefits of the human-animal bond. It is interesting to note that there are many similarities between how you help both a frightened human and a frightened dog. Exposure therapy in a predictable and controlled environment with lots of rewards.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about how to overcome a fear of dogs they will be more open to tolerating the presence of a dog or even consider bringing a dog into their homes and hearts?

SC: My overall goal is to help people learn about dogs and face their fear so they feel safe when they are near a dog. Many of my clients and readers have gone on to share their home with a dog and others are now able to go to the park, walk on a sidewalk and visit relatives without panicking.

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