Frightened by Fluffy or Fido? How guests, hosts can make the visit easier

March 16, 2015


When a relative’s 4-year-old son, Evan, came to a family party at Susan Willett’s home in Bridgewater, N.J., he was too afraid of her three dogs to leave his mother. Still, he was intrigued with Willett’s terrier, Tucker, and the dog’s insatiable appetite for retrieving balls.

So Willett asked the boy to throw Tucker’s ball. Tucker waited obediently, away from the boy, until he threw it again. And again.

"By the end of the picnic, Tucker was tired and (the boy) was no longer afraid," Willett said.

Willett helped the child overcome his fear by putting him in charge of the game, said Pia Salk, a psychologist in Irvington, N.Y., and a spokeswoman for Adopt-a-Pet.com. "People are afraid when they don’t feel in control."

Evan is hardly alone. A great many people of all ages are afraid of dogs and cats, and it’s a hard fear to avoid. The percentage of households with at least one pet (usually a cat or dog) rose to 62.4 percent in 2011 (the last year tallied), reports the American Veterinary Medical Association.

This creates logistical problems for the pet-wary as well as pet owners who love their pooch or kitty. Salk and other experts as well as pet owners offered some advice on handling the situation:

For pet owners

Understand that your guest’s fears "are not necessarily rational," Salk said. "It could be that he just associates the animal with a scary place in his past. Or he may have been raised by parents who also were afraid of pets."

Before guests arrive at your home, walk your dog or give him a play date with his buddies, suggested Mychelle Blake, CEO of The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. "Just like people, dogs are more relaxed after they exercise," Blake said. "Then he’ll be happy to take a nap while you enjoy time with your company."

Dana Watt takes her Labrador, Po, to off-leash parks near her St. Louis home, where he expends excess energy. When guests arrive, Watt uses a baby gate to corral Po, but it still allows the dog to see and hear everyone, she said. By the time she lets him out, he’s more likely to cuddle with than jump on visitors.

As for cats, find a comfortable room with access to water and a litter box while your nervous guests are visiting.

Remind guests, too, that dogs will reflect their own level of activity, said Patricia McConnell, certified animal behaviorist and zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Ramp up the excitement, and the dogs will get excited," she said. "Settle down, and they’ll settle down."

Teach your cat-averse friends to "look at the cat, then slowly shut your eyes while turning your head away," McConnell said. "He’ll come to you if he wants to play, but some cats are slow to make friends."

Teaching dogs a few basic commands, such as "sit" and "down," will also help them make friends easier, Blake said. And don’t be shy about telling strangers or new guests — whether they’re afraid or not — to refrain from petting your dog or cat if either tends to be skittish.

Capitalize on kids’ natural empathy with animals. Be sure to relay positive information — such as things your dog likes, such as being scratched on his back or fetching toys. "Kids are sick of being told what they should not do," McConnell said. "Tell them what they should do, and they’ll listen. Kids, especially, understand when you explain that when pets bite, it’s usually because they’re afraid."

For the pet-averse

Meet the pet owner you’re visiting halfway. First, understand that your host probably considers his dog or cat part of the family. But don’t hesitate to speak up if the pet scares you. "Most people will put the cat away or the dog on a leash until everyone is settled," Blake said.

Do understand that your fears may be putting friends and neighbors in an awkward position. "Love me, love my pet" may be the unwritten rule at their households. You may want to discuss the situation prior to your visit.

Is it time to overcome your fears? If it is affecting your ability or your child’s to function in social situations, or if you’re worried about passing on your fear to your kids, the experts suggested looking for places that may offer an age-appropriate introduction to animals. Animal shelters, Scout troops, 4-H and zoos are a few of the organizations you might investigate.

Decoding animal behavior may help you feel in control. Two places to start include an ASPCA guide to canine behavior on its website (aspca.org) and a HumaneSociety.org article on interpreting cat language.

Depending on the extent of your fear, you may also want to consider professional help.

Whatever you do, don’t try to dispel your fear by adopting a pet before you’re ready, Salk said. It’s a choice that can backfire on everyone. "Adopting a pet is a wonderful thing if you’re giving him a forever home," she said. "But relinquishing him (when it doesn’t work out) is not honoring the lifelong commitment you made to him."

In the end, it pays when pet-people and non-pet-people work together.

A year after Willett’s family picnic, Evan returned, much less afraid of her dogs, Willett reported.

It didn’t hurt that Willett sent Evan a framed picture of him playing with Tucker with a note "from Tucker" saying he looked forward to seeing him again. "His mom said he talked about Tucker all year," Willett said.

 

 


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