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How can I help my 3-year-old overcome his fear of animals?
Kristin Wakefield
His behavior does seem a little extreme, but there is nothing really abnormal about it. Dogs can be very frightening animals when you’re little—even when you’re big. They want to sniff or lick you, sometimes move unpredictably, bark or growl at you or another dog—or even try to mount a small child. When these things happen, the dog’s owner always offers reassurance such as, “He won’t hurt you; he just wants to play.” But 3-year-olds are too smart to let those words wipe out what they feel or think they know about fast-moving quadripeds! And, whenever there’s a dispute between a pet and a child, I’m on the child’s side!

Your son will probably get over this all by himself with time and the opportunity to learn that these loud and unpleasant sounds and movements rarely lead to an attack. His close emotional attachment to you will help him have the security he needs to explore the world of animals. There are many wonderful children’s books dealing with animals that you could read to him. Choose those with illustrations of real animals, not cartoon characters. And you might want to get a hand puppet of a dog or cat and let him be the animal in little made-up stories. That way he can identify with what he is afraid of and perhaps become less fearful.

And I would let him gradually get closer to real animals—always within the circle of your arms. If you have a friend with a phlegmatic dog that is used to children, try to arrange for him to be in the same room with it and possibly even pet it—while you’re down on the floor with him with your arm around him. Don’t try it with a dog that is feisty and intolerant. And if some of your friends imply that he is a “sissy” because of this fear, remind them that respect for and fear of dogs is not all bad for any of us.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education