Many children’s fears are natural and tend to develop at specific ages. For example, many children have a fear of the dark and have trouble sleeping at night but this fear generally passes with time as they develop and ‘grow out of it’. However, sometimes children experience intense fear that does not pass with time and begins to affect the child’s normal development and daily functioning.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder where there is an intense fear of a specific situation or object that in reality poses little or no actual danger. A common phobia in children is a phobia of animals, such as snakes, spiders, insects, rodents, and dogs.
Children with a phobia of dogs will attempt to avoid most or all situations where there are dogs (e.g. going to the park, walking to school, visiting friends’ houses etc.), which may negatively affect their development and daily functioning. The presence of, or even the thought of a dog, may generate great distress for the child, and they may seek constant reassurance through repetitive questioning about the whereabouts of a dog, or their own safety.
As with other phobias, a dog phobia generally causes the child to experience symptoms associated with anxiety when they exposed to dogs, including:
- Dizziness and light-headed
- Excessive sweating
- Racing, pounding heart
- Chest pain, tightness
- Shaking and trembling
- Hot and cold flushes
- Butterflies, a churning stomach
- Nausea and gastrointestinal distress
- Dry mouth, feeling of choking or difficulty in swallowing
- Running away
- School refusal and refusing to do usual activities
- Avoiding situations where dogs may be present
When a child’s fear of dogs exceeds what is typical for their age and developmental level, is persistent, and interferes with regular developmental activities (e.g. spending time at friend’s houses) and their daily functioning (e.g. walking to school) a diagnosis of a ‘Specific phobia, Animals’ is usually considered and intervention is recommended.
Treatment for dog phobia
As is the case for other anxiety disorders, research has demonstrated that Behavioural Therapy and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are the most effective interventions for dog phobias. Treatment often involves both the child and the parent(s) and includes the following components:
Education about anxiety and dog phobia with both the child and parent(s). This aims to provide information about how anxiety works, identifying triggers and factors which might be maintaining the child’s fears and worries and what can be done to break the cycle.
Emotion coaching: talking openly with the child about anxiety and other feelings and helping them understand their emotions as well as providing parent(s) or caregiver(s) with techniques and strategies about how to best respond to their child’s emotions/distress.
Behaviour management: attempting to reinforce wanted behaviours and reduce unwanted behaviours through rewards and behaviour charts. Encouraging coping and brave behaviours as well as reinforcing coping efforts and ‘facing fear’ goals. Providing parent(s) or caregiver(s) strategies to assist in this process – e.g. putting limits on the child’s reassurance-seeking and modelling coping behaviours.
Thought challenging and self-talk: Depending upon the age of the child (i.e., generally from 7 or 8 years onwards) therapy can also help children to identify worried thoughts that are increasing their fear of dogs. Strategies are taught that helps the child to challenge and unhelpful thoughts, using evidence and probability, and they are encouraged to adopt more realistic thoughts and positive self-talk, which in turn lead to lower levels of anxiety.
Exposure is the most important treatment component when overcoming a phobia of dogs. This technique involves helping children to gradually face their fear of dogs in a step-by-step approach. This involves exposing the child to situations that cause them to feel anxious in a hierarchical fashion – starting small and building up to more difficult tasks. When small realistic and achievable goals are set, children learn to sit with their anxiety and cope with it. They may also learn that their fears often do not come true or that they were not as bad as they had thought they were. Each step is practised frequently and consolidated before moving on to a more difficult step.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for a fear or phobia of dogs, or to book an appointment with one of our child clinical psychologists who provides treatment for phobias, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.