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Fear of dogs is overcome in small steps


My 7-year-old grandson is terrified of dogs. I would like some suggestions to help him overcome this.

-- Frances Morris,

# Potter Springs, Ga.

While a cute, fuzzy puppy may seem like the logical place to start, immature dogs can actually make the situation worse.

"Avoid puppies," says Karen T. Mellor, a reader from Richmond, Va., who teaches dog-obedience classes. "They tend to nip and bite when they play, and those teeth can hurt."

A better approach is to introduce the child to "the nicest, sweetest dog you can find," says Jane Leon, a veterinarian in private practice in the Washington area.

Make sure the dog stays at a distance the child can handle, says Dr. Leon, author of a book about children and pets called "Becoming Best Friends" (Berkley, $4.99).

Make sure the child understands that the dog absolutely cannot get to him, Ms. Mellor adds. Then gradually move the child closer to the dog.

"But don't push it," Dr. Leon warns. "It's positive exposure in little bits."

When a child is ready to get close enough to touch a dog, parents should actively participate.

"Put the child's hand in your hand, palm up, and let the dog sniff." says Bardi McLennan of Newtown, Conn., author of "Dogs & Kids" (Howell, $19).

"Next you hold the child's hand in yours and pet the dog gently together."

"Say, 'Oh look at the dog's pretty ears. Look at his pretty coat.' Anything rather than, 'He's not going to bite you,' " Ms. McLennan says. "That only puts the negative in the child's mind."

Parents who are afraid of dogs themselves may need to find someone else to help at this stage.

"Everyone should be really happy and comfortable around dogs," Dr. Leon says. "Most kids who are afraid, it's not because of bad experiences. It's usually because of parents who are uncomfortable with dogs themselves."

Local dog organizations are an excellent place to find a calm, well-behaved, older dog. A member with a dog trained to work in nursing homes and hospitals would likely be happy to help, Ms. McLennan says.

Breeders, veterinarians and shelters are other possible sources.

Dr. Leon says parents need to take a child's fear seriously. "It's extremely genuine and borders on hysteria," she says.

And the fear usually doesn't diminish with time.

"A 7-year-old who doesn't get help from his parents turns into a 12-year-old who is terrified of dogs," Dr. Leon says.

Reader Allison Smith-Foscue of Charlotte, N.C., who was bitten in the face by a dog at age 5, says she's still coping with her fear.

She, too, recommends a trained older dog over a puppy, saying her exposure to her father-in-law's seeing-eye dog has helped her begin to overcome her fear.

But some readers do recommend buying a puppy. "Get him a very young, small puppy," says Dorene Mowatt of Buffalo, N.Y. "It won't take the child very long to figure out that the puppy is not going to hurt him, that he is totally dependent on the child to take care of him, that the puppy loves him and that he is one heck of a lot of fun to play with.

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