I have been working with a lovely little girl who was bitten by a dog. She is a very pretty little girl, the family are Muslims and she was bitten when she was 3 and at the park with her family. The dog was later put down – and the girl has, no memory of the incident. This all happened two years ago: her sister was with her and the adults at the time, their parents were indoors. Both children were highly anxious of dogs when I met them.
The procedure for working with phobias tends to be similar in most cases. Go through the event that triggered the fear and try to minimise the effects. Then use some sort of graduated exposure so that the subject becomes increasingly confident of whatever the fear is about. This was working well. We did various things around the trigger event – easy really because she couldn’t much remember what had happened. So we concentrated on subsequent events which had involved dogs.
Then we went to meet and make friends with a dog. This wonderful animal is a much loved pet who goes to work with his owner daily. By happenstance, it is the same breed as the dog which bit her. They made friends, both children and the dog – it was lovely to watch the dog [initially anxious about the children] learn that they were going to be good fun in a peaceful way, and to watch the children glow in that pride you develop when an animal trusts you.
And the plan was to go on from there. To meet dogs at an animal sanctuary – dogs who you respect and pat, but don’t really pet, and then to go into the park and respond sensibly to dogs you casually come across. I believe that for small children, an appropriate relationship with dogs is respectful – you can talk to dogs if their owner says it is OK, but otherwise, perhaps you should stand behind an adult for a while.
And then it all fell to pieces. We went to the Animal Sanctuary, but Mum wanted to come with us and she is frightened of dogs. Both parents believe that dogs are unclean and are therefore a bit stuck in how much they are able to do to help the process of enabling the little girl to meet dogs and become comfortable around them. Both parents are willing to try – but it makes it harder when everything is clearly underpinned by anxiety and wet-wipes. So the parents have found themselves ‘too busy’ or ‘too ill’ to help, and I have not been able to go there often enough.
So we have stopped – and it is not concluded. I believe the children are sleeping better and are generally less anxious. I know that they have been comfortable with a dog, and that they were OK when we walked a dog together. But the parents are not happy that the girls are still very anxious of unfamiliar dogs – I think that is probably the best way for now. Certainly unless the parents can support all the work involved, things aren’t going to move much further; and until children become tall enough to threaten any dog that menaces them, they should be frightened during an unexpected encounter.