Sunday, May 27, 2012


One of the things that Seth and Lizzie brought home with them from Ethiopia was a fear of dogs.  Dogs in Ethiopia are not cuddly, household pets to be coddled and dressed up and given treats from doggie bakeries.  Dogs in Ethiopia are mostly wild, fearsome creatures which roam the streets and howl throughout the nights.  Dogs in Ethiopia are rightly to be avoided.

Seth has gradually been overcoming his fear, and is surprisingly becoming rather fond of dogs...they (and cats and babies) increasingly seem to bring out a very gentle side of him.  note: I fear that this may mean we'll need to get a pet for him at some point...well before I'm ready to take on another pet...but I digress.

But Lizzie...oh Lizzie.  She's very, very brave when it comes to talking about dogs.  She goes on and on about how much she loves dogs and how gentle she is with them and how brave she is with them.

The problem is that she's all talk.  The second a dog comes anywhere close to her, she screams and practically pees her pants in genuine and abject terror.  Gone are the signs of bravado; instead she's an irrational, quaking little girl trying to climb up me as far as she can get...if she could sit on my head, she'd be happy...I know this from personal experience.

As you know, we're currently staying with my friend, S.  They have a dog.  A big dog that is approximately Lizzie's height.  I've been talking with the kids about Gunther for weeks, trying to instil in Lizzie how lovely and harmless and friendly a creature he is - really and truly, she will likely never meet a friendlier and gentler dog than this one.  She talked the talk, and talked it well.  She was not only ready to meet Gunther, but she was excited to meet Gunther.

Until the moment she saw him.  The moment she laid eyes on him, she again climbed my body like a tree, screaming and crying.  I thought there might be some home when, the night we arrived at my friend's house, S put Gunther on a leash and held him close to her side so that Lizzie could observe him.  Eventually, Lizzie even got brave enough to even touch the leashed dog, and I thought that things were going to be ok.

But they were not.  We woke up on Saturday morning and Lizzie was practically paralyzed with fear.  Her personality seemed to shut down, and she just wanted to go into the basement and lock the door behind her.  Gunther was basically ignoring her, but even when he was outside or shut away in a room of the house, she simply could not move beyond it.  She was obsessed with where the dog was at every moment, and could not talk about anything other than the dog.  It was very frustrating.

Yesterday morning, my friend had to ask her sister to take the dog for a couple of days.  It's been a huge inconvenience for both families, and I feel absolutely terrible about it.  And grateful at the same time...because I guess it was either that or we stay in a's that bad.

I have to admit that I lack a little in the compassion department in this area.  I mean, in my head, I know that she has a background that makes it perfectly appropriate to fear dogs.  I also don't know if she was ever attacked by a dog.  But I'm impatient about it all, and keep ignoring the truth that fear is irrational.  I just feel like saying, Lizzie, come fact, I may actually have said these very words in a few of my less compassionate moments.  After all of the hard things I've dealt with in the past year, I don't know why this particular issue has been the one to push my buttons, but I'm plain old mad that she can't just 'get over' this.

She was almost as terrified of my cat last year, in the weeks that they lived in the same home.  During those eight weeks of cohabitation before Frodo died, Lizzie's fear never changed, and never dissipated.  She always needed to be assured that the cat was on a different floor of the house, and refused to go anywhere near Frodo.  It was difficult to the point where, despite my grief about Frodo's death, in some ways it was a relief not to have to worry about Lizzie's terrible fear any more.

Any suggestions about how to make this work better in the future?  It's too late for this trip, but this is going to something she needs to deal with because there are lots of dogs out there.  Should I take her to a pet store and hope that the sight of puppies and kittens will bring out the cuddly side of her?  What do I do?


  1. I'm afraid that baby animals might nip or scratch in their normal playfulness. I think introducing her (as in being in the same room with) to a small dog might help. Also, distracting her with a treat or a movie at the same time could help, too. I am like you in that those irrational fears make me impatient, even when I know that is counterproductive!

  2. Ruth, it sounds like Lizzie has a genuine phobia of dogs. With phobias, it's something kids really can't help. She can't think her way out of it on her own.

    This reminds me that I was going to post on the Yahoo group about a great book I am reading: "Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias."

    The book takes a cognitive behavioural approach (which lots of research shows is the most successful way of overcoming anxiety issues) and gives you a formula for helping a child through a phobia or fear. It's about bringing the risk down to size with cognitive exercises and then approaching it in tiny steps with small, manageable "get used to it" exercises, which is basically a program of desensitization.

    There is only one chapter on phobias since the book gives an overview of the different anxiety issues children can deal with, but as a start, I would definitely recommend reading that chapter.

    Good luck!

  3. Hey, thanks guys, and thanks for the referral Christy. Yeah, I know in my head that she can't help this fear, but I have to keep reminding myself of it...I just feel so impatient with it. But I'm working on it, and I'll check out that book.



  4. Interestingly, Ruth, this is the same with our two. Etta, our 6 year old, has completely overcome her fear of animals and now loves them. Zoe, our 3 year old, is your Lizzie, completely terrified.

    She did pet a dog that was confined this weekend, so hopefully, we are making slow progress.

  5. Ruth, Lizzie sounds EXACTLY like Tes and Chernet when they met our dogs for the first time. It was like like nothing that we had ever seen before. Now, Chernet loves the dogs and Tesfanesh tolerates them. It was a SLOW process.