Helping Your Child Overcome a Fear of Dogs

10 top tips from the experts in dog (and people) behavior.

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed By Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

Five-year-old Carly is fascinated by dogs. She loves them. Well, she loves the thought of them.

The doggone reality? Not so much.

"She'll go up to people walking their dogs and ask if she can pet them," says Laura Pittman, an Atlanta accountant and Carly's mom, "but as she puts her hand out, if the dog's muzzle gets anywhere near, she yanks it away and hides behind my leg."

Lots of kids happily run up to strange pooches and grab them in bear hugs -- much to the horror of mom and dad -- so what's behind the fear of dogs in some kids, and what can you do about it? To get the answers, and tips on how you can help your child overcome a fear of dogs, WebMD turned to the experts in dog (and people) behavior.

Why Do Some Kids Have a Fear of Dogs?

Kids are wildly different. Some rough-house, others read; some take off on adventures, and others fear new and challenging things. "These children are more sensitive to stimulating experiences," says Tracy A. Dennis, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology at Hunter College, the City University of New York, "and so have a lower threshold for feeling distress when they encounter something new or unexpected."

It's definitely the unknown and unexpected that contributes to a fear of dogs, says Linda P. Case, MS, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.Maybe mom and dad haven't talked to their child about dogs, or that child has had little exposure to one.

Other times the reasons for a child's fear are clearer. "A lot of parents teach their kids to avoid dogs," says Renee Payne, CPDT-KA, a certified pet dog trainer. "I see parents teaching kids that dogs are scary."

Dogs Are Afraid of Kids, Too

Children aren't alone in their fears; sometimes the problem is magnified because dogs can be afraid of children, too.

"A lot of kids freak dogs out," says Payne, co-author of Be a Dog's Best Friend, especially mobile kids under age 5 or 6. "They do all the things dogs think are impolite. They're right at eye level, so they stare. They scream and yell. They flail their arms. And at that age they move in a very stop-and-start erratic way."

So how can you help fearful kids (and dogs) to meet in the middle? The pros offer these tips for taking the tension out of dog-child introductions and interactions.