How one woman created her own exposure therapy “bootcamp” for her canine-phobic daughter.
et out of my car!”
A huge dog had just leaped into the back seat of my SUV and was hovering over my three-year-old daughter, who was securely fastened in her car seat. The dog ignored me. He panted and wagged his tail so hard that it hit me. He began to sniff my daughter all over.
“Honey, don’t move too much. We don’t know this doggie,” I said as I tried to figure out the best way to get this strange dog away from my child.
“Okay, Mommy, but I’m scared.”
Luckily, my daughter was stoic in nature, like her father.
I noticed the dog’s short, black and brown fur, long ears, and large canines. My toddler strained upwards in her car seat, trapped and helpless should the dog attack.
A few minutes earlier we had driven up to my daughter’s preschool for a lunchtime Mother’s Day party. I parked, opened the door, and the dog jumped over me and into the back seat. Now his mouth was open, and his lolling pink tongue and big teeth were way too close to my daughter.
As a child I was fearless around dogs, my mother told me, until I started reading about people who were mauled by their canine companions. My overly active imagination filled in the rest, and I started avoiding any dog in my path. As a mother, I was fairly successful at keeping my fears contained when I was around my daughter. I’d simply say to dog owners, “I’m not a dog person. Please keep him away from me.”
This particular dog, drooling over my daughter, didn’t seem inclined to attack, but he was big, unknown, and scaring my child. I wanted him out of the car.
“Get out!” I shrieked.
The dog yelped loudly once, and then continued barking in short, deep reverberations, getting more excited by the moment.
“Mommy, help me. Stop!” My daughter raised her hand to push the dog away.
I opened my purse and dug around inside, my eyes on my daughter. I finally found a mini box of Cheerios that I had been saving for snack time. Despite my panic, I acted as calm as possible, hoping that might keep my daughter from panicking, too.
I opened the car door and stepped out, pulled my arm back, and threw the box of cereal as far as I could.
The dog bounded out of the car in a flash of tail and teeth, chasing after his new toy. I jumped back into the front seat, slammed the door shut, and turned around to make sure my daughter was okay. “Are we safe now, Mommy?” Her voice shook.
“Yes, we’re safe, baby. Mommy would never let that dog hurt you.”
Shaken, I leaned on the horn to attract attention. Luckily, a passing cop heard me and stopped. I told him the story and he went to the house in front of the preschool to investigate. The dog stayed right by my car, as if waiting for a chance to get back in.
The policeman came back after a few minutes and told me that the owner didn’t know that his dog had gotten out. He didn’t ask if I wanted to pursue the matter, though in retrospect I probably should have considered it.
Still shaken, I called my husband. I also shared the story at the preschool party, where well-intentioned people said we were so lucky, that it could have been much worse. Caught up in the moment, I didn’t realize that my daughter was listening, and that those words would stay with her.
The seeds of damage soon sprouted in my daughter’s fertile imagination. She started telling us about bad dreams where “a mean doggie came into the car and sniffed me and wanted to bite me.” I told her that she could stop her dreams with the dream catcher we kept in her room, but that didn’t work. Her nightmares persisted, and I worried a true phobia had taken root.
A fear is born
“What happened was traumatic for your daughter,” said Dr. Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist and exposure therapist also known on her website as Dr. Psych Mom. “Not only was her mommy upset, but a policeman also came on the scene. The incident stuck in her mind.”
It’s true. Every time we were out and she saw a dog on a leash, she pulled my hand to get us as far away as possible.
“Mommy, is that a bad doggie?” she asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” I told her. “We would have to check with the owner.”
The bigger the dog, the more frightened she was, and the harder she tried to get away from the perceived danger. Because of my own fears, I didn’t fight her on it.
It was the wrong approach for both of us. “If you avoid your fears without directly addressing them, it just gives them more power,” says Patty Chang Anker, an expert on facing fears and author of Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave.
Determined to find a solution to my daughter’s phobia, I began researching the phrase “fighting children’s fears.” Eventually I came across the term “exposure therapy,” which is defined as “a technique in behavior therapy intended to treat anxiety disorders, that involves exposing the patient to the feared object or context, without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety.” One study shows that children who have a fear of the dark had a clinically significant reduction in anxiety after being read books, such as Uncle Lightfoot and Flip that Switch: Overcoming Fear of the Dark, by their parents over a four-week period.
Next, I read an article on the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology website about how researchers at Virginia Tech used three hours of exposure therapy, funded by a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), to help children to overcome the most common phobias — dogs, storms, and the dark — which could potentially lead to anxiety and depression.
Here’s how the therapy worked: First, the clinician and the child developed a list of anxiety-provoking situations. They used a step-by-step process called systematic desensitization, starting with a mildly threatening situation. For example, if the child thought that standing near a dog would cause the dog to knock him over and bite him, the clinician would have the child stand near the dog and then keep notes on whether or not it acted as expected. By testing their own predictions, the children gained a sense of control. The therapist also provided safety tips. In the case of dogs, the therapist might instruct a child to ask the animal’s owner if the pet was friendly before approaching it. At the end of the session, the children faced their worst fears — perhaps petting a dog, or walking one on a leash.
The results were impressive. Sixty percent of the children lost their phobia diagnoses after participating in treatment that combined exposure, correcting dysfunctional thoughts about phobic objects, and learning how to deal with their fears. What I found astounding was that at a one-year follow-up, the percentage of children who were no longer phobic rose to seventy-five percent.
One key to the treatment’s success appears to be the support of the children’s parents and how they encouraged their children to practice their skills and face their fears. A follow-up study showed that children with animal phobias were able to get over them faster than children with natural environment phobias.
Based on the successful outcome of these studies, I decided to create my own amateur exposure therapy bootcamp.
I knew that there were preliminary steps to take before my daughter would be comfortable seeing dogs in real life. My first thought was that she could safely pore over pictures in a book, so I purchased The Dog Breed Bible. She loved going through and testing herself on all the different breeds. To my surprise, she continued to sleep with her stuffed animal Zooey, a Puppy Surprise pet, and her five pups.
After a few weeks, keeping in mind the fear-of-the-dark study, I bought the books The Poky Little Puppy and Clifford, the Big Red and read them to her before bedtime. She enjoyed the stories, but I had to reassure her that these dogs weren’t like the one that had jumped into our car.
Then together we watched the cartoon show Pound Puppies. All was going well.
Then, just when I thought we were making great progress, she’d see a dog on a leash while we were out, and ask if it was a bad doggie.
We were at an impasse.
Barking up the right tree
Six months later, I planned a family winter vacation in Stowe, Vermont. With visions of skiing, taking a family sleigh ride in a horse-drawn carriage, and later sitting by the fire, a cup of hot cocoa in my hands, I looked forward to our holiday trip.
When the hotel mailed me a package of tour options, my eyes locked on the brochure for Eden Dog Sledding — home of the “UN-Chained Gang.” Unlike traditional sled dogs, Eden’s dogs are free-range and allowed to run, swim, and play on the property. The program encourages guests to groom, pet, play with, harness, and feed the dogs before and after sled tours. “Our goal is to provide a healthy, happy home for our dogs while giving guests of all ages a hands-on, educational, lifetime experience,” the brochure stated.
The concept reminded me of an “Equine Experience,” created by therapist Wyatt Webb, that I participated in at a spa in Arizona. During classes, we worked on the ground with specially selected horses. We groomed them (which included picking up and cleaning their hooves), fed them, and ultimately rode them. In the process we learned a lot about ourselves, and how we dealt with fear, frustration, and self-doubt. For example, one woman’s inability to get the horse to lift its hooves was attributed to her overly cautious nature — horses sense a lack of commitment to an action. She admitted to our group that she did tend to tiptoe around other people instead of addressing her own desires.
I hoped that through working with dogs in a similar fashion — harnessing, grooming, and feeding them — my daughter would reclaim her confidence.
I called Jim Blair, Eden’s owner and an international sprint sled dog champion. When I told him about my daughter’s fears, he enthusiastically explained that the Alaskan huskies in the UN-Chained Gang are “joyful, intelligent, love to cuddle and play, and are expert at allaying children’s fears.” In fact, Jim’s goal is to turn Eden into an educational non-profit serving youth, adults, and those with special needs.
My husband and I were convinced: dog sledding would be the final educational, healing, and fun component of our exposure therapy bootcamp.
Riding in sleds with dogs
In Vermont, heading to our dog sledding adventure, we trudged through two feet of snow in freezing temperatures with new winter clothes on our bodies, courtesy of a last minute trip to REI. As we walked up the path to Eden’s education center, we sank a foot deep into the snow. When we opened the door, we saw Alaskan huskies of all colors everywhere, snuggled up on mats, piled on the couch, drinking from water dishes. My daughter pushed closer to me and shrunk back as we tried to enter the room without being bowled over by the dogs.
“It’s okay, don’t worry,” I said. Yet I felt nervous as my husband cleared a path through the room. Some of the dogs ran up to jump on him, but when the owner said, “Down,” they listened. My daughter watched, wide-eyed, as my husband and I stroked the dogs behind their ears. Jim told us their names and their stories. Luna was the grandmother to all of them and no longer ran with the team. Jessie was black and about thirty-five pounds, and Buster was wolf-like in stature and about eighty-five pounds. Hosta was a little stubborn and liked to take the lead. They all had different personalities but one thing in common: they were happy dogs, enjoyed people, and loved going sledding.
As my daughter saw my husband and I relax among the dogs, she did, too. Soon, she was hesitantly petting the dogs and peppering Jim with questions about them — who was the mamma, who were the babies, what did they like to eat? When Jim asked my daughter if she’d like to learn how to harness the dogs, I held my breath. To my surprise, she agreed and immediately took to the task.
We went outside and as Jim and his staff prepared the dogs to run with the sled, he asked my daughter if she wouldn’t mind feeding them and giving them treats. Happily, she agreed and started pouring dog food into huge dishes. After watching them down their food, she threw the dogs treats and laughed as they jumped to snatch up each one.
I was astonished. Watching my daughter play with the dogs was the best therapy I could imagine. She was so joyful, like the dogs, and didn’t show any fear being around them.
“Playing with an animal causes the brain to release oxytocin, the bonding hormone,” said Dr. Rodman. “It rewires the brain and calms the cortisol stress response.” The much-touted strong emotional bonding between humans and dogs may actually have a biological basis in oxytocin.
Published research from the Life Sciences Institute at Pretoria shows that oxytocin levels rise in both a dog and the owner after time spent “cuddling.” Another study shows that just thirty minutes of eye contact was necessary between dogs and their owners to increase oxytocin levels.
After harnessing all the dogs, feeding them, and attaching the harnesses to the sled, our family got onto the sled. My husband went first, I fit in between his legs, and my daughter sat between mine. We were bundled up to our necks in blankets, wearing goggles to protect our eyes from snow and ice that might be kicked up during the ride.
Jim shouted, “Mush!” and the dogs were off. We flew through the snow. The dogs pounded through the groomed trails, their combined feet creating a symphony of sound like wild horses on a rampage.
I held my daughter tightly and marveled at the incredible mountain views as we dashed through the snow like Santa Claus on speed. I could barely see through the snowy mist, but I noticed that my daughter’s body language was relaxed. I knew that powerful, healing endorphins were being released in her body as she experienced the thrill of the sled ride.
When we got home, my daughter couldn’t stop telling everyone we knew about how much fun she had with Mommy and Daddy feeding, harnessing, and going on a sledding ride with the “doggies and Luna’s babies.”
After her sledding adventure, her nightmares stopped and haven’t returned. Even better, she regained her former love of real dogs — not just cartoons and stuffed animals — and now says she hopes to have one of her own one day.
I’m so grateful that my daughter’s uplifting experience with the UN-Chained Gang had finally supplanted her previous traumatic experience. To be honest, it helped me with my fears, too.
“Your exposure therapy bootcamp was successful because you remained by her side the entire time, as she processed her emotions, and managed to stay calm about your own fears,” said Dr. Rodman. “You also exposed her to the stimulus — dogs — little by little, through books, videos, TV shows, and then eventually through these specially trained sled dogs, instead of ’flooding’ her — i.e., taking her to a dog park and letting them surround her.”
“The confidence that your daughter gained from working through her fear and bonding with the dogs is a gift you gave her that will carry over to her relationships and in other areas for the rest of her life,” Anker said.
Will my little one reclaim her fear of dogs when she’s older, like I did? I have no idea. The only thing I know and take solace in is that if I can give her the opportunities to face her fears head on and learn from them, through taking those kinds of risks, her life can only become richer.
That’s a ride I’m willing to take with her.