Case Study >   Overcoming fear of dogs




My five year old Son, Zac, had a fear of dogs that was getting progressively worse. To my knowledge he’d never had a bad experience with dogs, but was still petrified of them. His fear had progressed so far that he had asked around pre-school to find out who had a dog, so that if he was invited to their party or a play-date at their house he could decline the invitation.

It was making everyday life difficult for Zac and the family as dogs were everywhere; coffee shops, walking past our house, cousin’s houses, friend’s houses, parks, footpaths, bike paths; pretty much every place we went to.

We decided that we needed to help him overcome this fear before he started school, firstly so that he wouldn’t exclude himself from playing with his new friends but also so that he could just relax instead of constantly being on high alert.

We visited a Child Psychologist who recommended we set up a goal and break it down into achievable steps to help Zac overcome his fear. This method is based on exposure therapy which is a proven concept used for decades to help people overcome fears and anxiety.

We went about breaking Zac’s goal down into small, achievable steps and associating a reward with each step. We involved him in this process by asking him to help us order the steps from the easiest to the hardest and jointly deciding on appropriate rewards. This helped him to own the process (as much as a five year old can!) rather than feeling like it was being forced upon him. It also made him feel like we were working together to support him and help him conquer his fear as a team.

The steps and associated rewards are described below. He repeated each step 3 times to ensure he had mastered it before moving on to the next step.


Step Description


Step 1:  Read books with dogs in them and look at pictures of dogs on the internet

 Bike ride with Dad

Step 2: Sit inside a coffee shop with Mum and Dad while there are dogs outside and feel ok

 Play date with a friend

Step 3: Go for a walk with Mum and Dad and let dogs walk past me

 Policeman Lego

Step 4: Visit a friend who has a dog with Mum and Dad. I can stay inside while the dog is outside

 Hire a movie of my choice

Step 5: Visit a friend who has a dog with Mum and Dad. This time I need to be in the same place as the dog for some of the time.

 Go out to dinner at my favourite restaurant

Step 6: Pat a friendly dog that you know

 Go to see a movie of my choice

Step 7: Take a dog for a walk with Mum or Dad

 Buy a DVD of my choice

Step 8: Take a dog for a walk by myself with Mum or Dad watching

Buy my favourite Lego set


Zac breezed through the first step which involved reading picture books about dogs and looking at dogs on the internet. Despite the ease in which he did this, he repeated it three times to be sure that he had mastered this step before he moved on.

The second step was more challenging. Even though he was inside the coffee shop as dogs walked by outside, he was still fearful that they might come inside. We spoke about the fact that dogs were not allowed inside and Zac wrote about his feelings in a journal, to help him visualise the experience more clearly and rationally.

By the third repetition, Zac was almost there. He felt much calmer and was able to think more realistically. We repeated the step once more to ensure that he had overcome this particular nervousness, before moving on. He still got his reward (a play date with his friend), but along with the extra repetitions came an extra play-date.

We had one significant hurdle to overcome before we could progress any further; my sister’s dog died and he was to be the dog Zac would spend time with and eventually take for a walk when he got to the final step! Luckily a friend offered to allow Zac to practice this interaction with her dog Chelsea. She was quite “yappy” at first but quickly settled down and became more placid and co-operative. With Chelsea, Zac and I worked through the final steps with varying degrees of success at first, mastering each by the third repetition.

We added an extra step between steps three and four as we were unsure whether Zac was ready for the challenge. This extra step involved us going to a park as a family and Zac playing whilst dogs were at the park. After he completed the 3rd repetition of the new step he was ready to move onto the original step 4.

It was a really positive and rewarding experience for all of us. As Zac progressed through the goal he became much more relaxed in general and less fearful when a dog would bark in the neighbourhood or when we went for a walk. He enjoyed the rewards he received and was motivated to get through the steps not only to receive the rewards but because each step made him feel more confident and proud.

It took us 2 months to achieve the goal of “Overcoming Fear of Dogs” and a further couple of months to translate that lack of fear to cats. We did all of this without going back to see the Psychologist.

About three months after he completed his original goal he phoned me from his Grandmother’s place to tell me that he had visited a baby farm animal display at the local shopping centre and it was the first time he’d ever felt comfortable enough to stay and pat the animals. He was so proud of himself and as I write this, two years later, I’m still really proud and emotional. He described to me how much more enjoyable life is when you’re not scared of animals!

Fishwah has been designed to empower parents to help their own children. However, it may be appropriate, particularly where the anxiety is severe, to see a health professional in addition to using Fishwah.