Q. My five-year-old daughter is terrified of dogs after she was nipped by one last year. How can I help to ease her fears?
A. Kerry Taylor, education manager at the Blue Cross animal charity, says: “Fear can be a challenging emotion, especially for a child. They might not understand or be able to control their actions, so finding a method that helps your daughter relax, such as deep breathing or counting to 10, might be useful for when she’s in a fearful situation.
“As your daughter’s fear is a direct result of being bitten, it might be helpful to talk about what happened and explore the reasons why. Talking this through may build a picture of why the dog may have bitten and what could be done to reduce the chance of this happening again. This isn’t around blaming the child or dog, but useful in trying to understand the situation and promote an appreciation from both points of view.
“Although your daughter is still fairly young, she may relate to the fact that dogs have feelings too. They can’t talk the same way as we do, so they rely on their body language to let us know how they might be feeling. Knowing more about how dogs communicate may help build her confidence and help her start to recognise how dogs may look when they’re relaxed or unsure.
“Remember this process will take time, and a gradual exposure to positive experiences around dogs will have more success than pushing your daughter out of her comfort zones and doing too much too soon. You may want to start by encouraging some learning around dogs such as watching a cartoon, an online video, or looking at pictures. Talk about how great dogs are, the jobs they can have and the family relationships they can build.
“Do you have friends or family that have a quiet, relaxed and friendly dog that you might be able to slowly introduce your daughter to? This will need to be done over time in a controlled way, once she feels ready. Being in an environment where your daughter and the dog feel comfortable will help, and several short, positive experiences will hopefully assist in reducing her anxiety around dogs.
“But remember it can be common for children to build a positive relationship with a dog they know well, but still show some uncertainty around dogs they don’t know as well. This is ok and can be similar for dogs too. So be mindful that you may need to start again slowly when introducing new dogs.”