From fear to friends – how a child overcame a phobia of animals

Child with dog

Many children love animals. A playful being that they can care for, it’s not uncommon for young people to dote on pets. But sometimes anxiety or fear can develop, and animals become a perceived threat rather than a source of comfort.

Kate’s daughter Grace started to get more and more nervous around cats and dogs when she was 10 years old. She was scared to go round to people’s houses with pets and was always nervous when the family went out for walks in case they saw a cat or dog. There were streets she started to avoid because there were cats.

Although Kate was aware that there was a problem, it was one particular event that made her realise that Grace needed help. ‘She was walking round to a friend’s house one morning that was only a few minutes away and she got herself lost when she came across a cat at the corner of our street and decided to go another way rather than go past the cat or turn back to our house. She was missing for about ten minutes just because of a cat on the corner of the street. It was a very scary experience for Grace and me – I knew we had to find a solution. 

Sometimes exposure therapy is recommended. The idea is that eventually the fear will ebb away. Kate tried this, taking her to meet friendly dogs and new kittens, but nothing worked. ‘We took her round to meet a friend’s kitten, which did not work because the kitten as too playful and scared Grace even more. We introduced her to dogs owned by friends and neighbours but nothing made Grace feel relaxed. She could never stroke a dog even if the owner said it was super gentle – Grace was too scared.’ 

Kate knew that this fear, whilst not sensible, was not wholly irrational. It had roots. When Grace was three the family were out walking on Kew Green, and a black Labrador puppy jumped up on her and knocked her down. The puppy had been on a lead but the child holding the lead had not pulled the puppy back. This experience had led her to be worried that all animals could be unpredictable. The issue was that it was now having a negative impact on her day to day life and the family’s life, and her fears were transferring to her younger sister.

Javier spent two hours with Grace and made her a thirty minute recording for her to listen to every night for a few weeks. ‘I think she listened to it for about 2 months and then slowly stopped listening to it over time as we started to notice that she was not feeling as scared of cats and dogs,’ says Kate.  

‘It was noticeable within a month Grace did not flinch when a dog came near her in the park or passing her on the street. She agreed to hold rabbits and guinea pigs at a petting farm and more recently she has befriended a cat she sees on her way to school, and stops to stroke it every day. Now our girls are keen to get a puppy!’

Grace is now much more confident, and feels positive about her experience. ‘I think it was very good. The session with Javier was fun. The recording really helped. I really am much, much better around animals now I can actually stroke them and before I couldn’t even go near them.’