Fear of Dogs by
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(289 Stories)

Prompted By Fears and Phobias

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Dedicated to the late Penny, the perfect dog for a child’s phobia

Dog lovers, please don’t hate me. I really, really like dogs. I adored my own dog Checkers as a child and loved our Yorkshire Terrier Rocky when my kids were growing up. One of my daughters is a vet, and all of my kids have dogs. But I have to agree when it comes to banning dogs from children’s playgrounds. In fact, I have to go further and ask dog owners to think twice before bringing their dogs to places like street fairs and school grounds. Yes, dogs have rights, but so do the folks who fear them.

Not all kids, or adults for that matter, love dogs. Can’t there be a few dog-free public spaces where a young girl can ride her bike or play or simply take a walk and feel safe?

There was an ongoing controversy in Chicago over the banning of dogs from Maggie Daley Park, a beautiful play space for kids. Of course, the usual reason given for outlawing dogs from some city parks is the poop. Yes, I know you pick up after your dog, but not everyone does. And there are also those stinky treasures in plastic baggies filling the trash containers. But there is another reason for keeping dogs out of parks designed for kids that I rarely read about: Some kids have a phobia about dogs.

Like many children with sensory issues, one of my grandchildren is deathly afraid of dogs. So afraid that she was almost hit by a car running into the street to avoid the many dogs outside of her school. She had a full-blown panic attack. Some days, entering or leaving school was like running the gauntlet for her. I know what you are thinking. She should just get over it. It’s a dog’s world. Well, that’s not so easy for a child with special needs who was knocked down by a large dog in a park near her home at age two. And it’s not uncommon for children with special needs to fear dogs, even without a traumatic encounter. Dogs bark loudly, move suddenly into their space, and jump up on them – all friendly gestures that upset kids who have sensory issues.

Let me share how hard our family has tried to help my granddaughter “get over” her fear of dogs:

For over a year, I took her to weekly sessions at Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy. It’s a wonderful program with extremely patient volunteers who bring their well-behaved dogs to interact with children like my granddaughter. Her fear did lessen to the point where she could walk a dog and brush its fur. If all dogs lived in a predictable environment like Rainbow, she would have made her peace with them. Unfortunately for her, the experiences at Rainbow did not carry over to dogs she saw in her everyday life. Those dogs barked, jumped, and didn’t sit quietly when she whispered, “Sit.”

Next, her mother arranged for sessions with a friend’s therapy dog, facilitated by a child behavioral therapist. That also fell flat as it was hard to coordinate the therapist’s and dog’s availability. So, we hired Susan, a wonderful dog trainer. My granddaughter did like Susan’s gentle 155-pound Leonberger, Sunny. That relationship helped a bit, but she soon discovered, once again, that most of the dogs she encountered out in the world were nothing like Sunny. They didn’t lie passively on the floor like Sunny did, inviting her to put her head on his immobile body. Tiny pups one tenth of Sunny’s size yipped, nipped, and slipped away from their owners. She could never anticipate what they might do. Unlike cats, dogs slobber all over you and crave interaction. The very qualities we dog-lovers admire terrified her.

Many friends and relatives tried to accommodate my granddaughter’s fear by promising their dogs would be locked up when she visited their homes. But dogs are social creatures that cleverly escape confinement to join the crowd. Every time, the dog inevitably bounded into the room at some point. One very special surprise was finding a family member’s Rottweiler on top of the dining room table when we went in to eat. She had supposedly been locked upstairs in a bedroom. Incidents like that only reinforced her fear that dogs could appear at any time, regardless of what she had been told.

Her parents finally decided drastic measures were in order. They bit the bullet and Penny joined their family. They had Penny trained as a therapy dog, and she was indeed a wonderful pet. I can’t say my granddaughter loved her, but she did grow fond of her and accepted her as part of the family. And her anxiety level around other dogs, while not gone, was somewhat reduced. Still, when she unexpectedly encountered a dog, she panicked and ran. Both behaviors would excite the dog, producing exactly the response she feared.

I hope all of you dog-lovers out there will try to understand how hard we tried. Despite this, when you tie your dog outside a grocery store or the post office or a school (and to those of you who ignore the “no dogs” sign and bring your dog onto the school playground during school hours), you are being unfair to those who fear dogs. When you bring your dogs to a children’s park or playground, you disenfranchise some children who can no longer feel safe to play there. And when you let your dog run off-leash in public places … well, there are no words for you. That’s just plain wrong.

There are so many places off limits to my granddaughter because of her dog anxiety. Her family can’t stroll through outdoor art fairs or even walk along a nature path. They accept this. But just as my granddaughter would never go to a dog park expecting pooches that don’t like kids to leave, I think she and other children like her have the right to go to school or the grocery store or a park created for children without having to worry about sharing these places with dogs. I know your dog is different. Your dog is friendly and loves kids. But not all kids, or adults for that matter, love dogs. Can’t there be a few dog-free public spaces where a young girl can ride her bike or play or simply take a walk and feel safe?

Learning to trust Penny

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Comments

  1. Thanx for sharing this Laurie.
    In our local park there are two dog runs – one for small and one for large dogs, and I love watching the dogs frolic . Of course they are confined with responsible owners watching them.

    But on the grassy areas where “No dogs allowed “ signs are prominently posted many dog owners ignore the warnings. Years ago I was on the board of that local park association and I remember that unscooped dog poop, but also and dogs on the grass and off leach were issues of concern. And now I realize how serious that could be for some kids like your granddaughter.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    I am also a dog-lover, but you are right that they can be unpredictable and scary, so your pleas are entirely reasonable. I’m sorry your granddaughter has had to endure those distressing moments. My dog is “friendly” and mellow, but he can also react to threatening situations, so I try to be alert to possible interactions—but I know not everyone pays attention as they should.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      That’s so true. Even in our condo building, people are not very thoughtful about controlling their dogs. I realy like dogs, but being trapped on a crowded elevator with a dog that’s not on leash doesn’t seem considerate of others. My husband just tolerates dos and doesn’t appreciate being slobbered on.

  3. It looks as if your granddaughter’s trust issue was solved by the lovely, patient-looking Penny. That photo suggests a real success story. I hope your granddaughter’s phobia has abated. Thanks Laurie. Lovely story.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Charles. Yes, she’s a lot better but will never be a lover of strange dogs. After Penny died, they adopted two dogs during Covid, and she especially likes the smaller one, who is pretty friendly.

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