Canine enthusiasm can sometimes lead to a fear of dogs, or Cynophobia in kids. An unexpected greeting or an accidental nip at a finger while playing tug of war may leave a child with a scary memory that breeds fear. If this event is isolated, and the child has limited exposure to dogs, it is more likely that the one experience will stick and dominate the schema a child forms surrounding other canine interactions.
A schema is an organized pattern of thoughts and behavior surrounding an event that is formed with the experience of that event. In other words, it is a mental outline of expectations of what will happen when a similar situation occurs. A child forms a schema when they experience their first day of school, and bases his or her expectations of subsequent first days of school on that schema, for example.
When a child’s negative experience with a dog is imprinted and not overwritten by more frequent positive experiences that enable him to form an understanding of doggie behavior, he may grow to freak out every time a dog invades his personal space. How can parents be proactive in alleviating the anxiety following an unsuccessful dog encounter?
Step 1: Start with the idea of dogs. Exposing kids to talking cartoon dogs in movies, or plush toy dogs is the first step in “exposure therapy”.
Step 2: Frequent a doggie park. Parents can nonchalantly take the exposure therapy to the next level by encouraging a rest stop on a bench near a dog park to watch the pups from a safe distance.
Step 3: Focus on the older and wiser. Once the child is ready, parents should start with introducing kids to adult dogs. Adult dogs may appear more frightening, but are less likely to nibble at tiny fingers (unlike they’re younger counterparts who are still teething.)
Step 4: Teach kids the rules of the game. Understanding body language goes a long way, even in our four legged friends. Kids can learn to identify simple expressions like tail wags or subtle growls to know when to play or when to give a pup its space.