Animal fears

Holly asked about kids who are fearful of animals: “My 2.5-year-old twins are terrified of animals, and have been for as long as they’ve been aware of them.  They are fascinated by the animals in their books, and find dogs riding in cars to be particularly amusing, but they absolutely dissolve when a dog or cat comes within 10 feet of them.  I’ve tried everything I can think of to calm their fears – me holding the animals first, talking about how nice they are, watching their tails wag, etc.  All of that is fine as long as I’m holding the kids or the animals are a “safe” distance away.”

The key is gradual desensitization—providing exposure to animals in a way that doesn’t cause fear, but allows the kids to gradually get more comfortable around animals. Similar techniques and principles apply to other fears, like a fear of thunder or heights. Some good general rules for desensitization:

  • Brief, frequent exposures are better than prolonged rare exposures.
  • Don’t push the exposures to the point where fear starts; in other words, better to take a slow and gentle approach rather than push things along.
  • Any sort of exposure can be helpful: just talking about it, or pictures, or movies. Any positive experience will help build towards future success.

Some specific ideas for desensitizing children are listed below. Use whichever of these sounds right to you, in the order that seems the least fearful for your own children. Some will work better than others; you’ll have to experiment. Everyone is welcome to post any other ideas that have helped!

  • Visit a pet store. The dogs and cats will be in cages or behind a glass wall—easy to see, easy to talk about, but no touching. (I don’t suggest buying a pet from one of these places—often they’re from inhumane “puppy mills.” Get a pet from a rescue organization, shelter, or a good breeder.)
  • Watch shows about animals, like “The Dog Whisperer,” or other kid-friendly nature shows.
  • Encourage kids to color in dog drawings, or make animals out of clay.
  • Find a friend with a small, well-behaved dog or cat to visit. For the first visit, leave the animal on the other side of a gate or fence, just to make a non-threatening introduction.
  • Take a stuffed toy dog on a walk (more of a drag, really. But toddlers have good imaginations.)

Remember, you need a slow-and-steady approach: there is no hurrying this. Give positive feedback for every encounter, and don’t expect and quick turnaround. But with patience and frequent small exposures you can expect your kids to learn to enjoy time with dogs.

Cats, on the other hand…

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One Comment on “Animal fears”

  1. DM Says:

    I just went through something very similar with my 2 1/2 yr old daughter. She was suddenly deathly afraid of bumblebees! We put her on the offensive when she saw one, and told her to put up her arms like a tiger and say ‘roar’ to it. Before we knew it, she was out playing and chasing any bees away! It might be worth a shot!


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