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How Our Daughter Overcame Her Fear Of Dogs

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GOLDEN RETRIEVER
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As part of Speak Up for Kids, an initiative led by Child Mind Institute to provide the public with information about children’s mental health, we will be running a series of stories about families whose children have been diagnosed with mental health conditions.

Here, in her own words, Julie Ann, 42, talks about getting help for her daughter Hannah, 9, who has generalized anxiety that manifested itself, largely, in an overwhelming phobia of dogs -- a common and often overlooked fear.

A Happy Start

For the first four years of Hannah's life, we had a dog. Her name was Madison, and she was an enormous golden retriever. Hannah loved her. But by the time Hannah was 2, my husband Steve and I were noticing that while she liked Madison, she did not like other dogs. We'd go for a walk, and other people would come up with their dogs, and Hannah would kind of push them away. It was a general uneasiness, a mistrust.

Madison died when Hannah was 4, and it started to become more and more pronounced -- from a dislike to a real fear. She'd see another dog and hide behind me, and then that evolved into a panicked reaction. Hannah would flee, and began avoiding all situations where dogs were a possibility.

There were other things going on at the same time. She started having more social anxiety -- I would get to school early to pick her up and I'd see that she wasn't playing with other kids at the playground, she was just kind of wandering around.

'The Wheels Fell Off'

By first grade, things started to really kind of spin out of control. She started to have separation anxiety in the morning at school -- she wouldn't let me leave -- and she'd have times during the day when she'd become really withdrawn and clearly distressed. At that point, I went to a therapist myself to get parenting advice. I thought, "I have a kid that's struggling, and my natural instincts aren't helping the situation. So I need someone to give me ideas about how to respond." It helped a little bit, but it was clear that we needed more. So we saw a therapist near us in Scarsdale, but there was no clear diagnosis.

When second grade started, it was like the wheels fell off. She completely refused to go into school. I would take her to the school psychologist's office every morning, who would then have to peel her off of me.

Then one day, the kids were playing in the yard, and I was walking up the hill after a jog. I could see my neighbors were standing in the street, and there was someone there who had a young black Lab that was off its leash. The dog could hear the kids were playing and he took off, running up our driveway. Hannah saw him, started screaming her head off and started running. She tripped, and the dog was excited and jumped on top of her, while she was just screaming. It was beyond horrible. It makes me so sad to think about.

Getting Help

At that point, it became apparent that this was bigger than what we were going to be able to fix. We went to Child Mind Institute and did this intense diagnosis process -- Hannah had generalized anxiety -- and started her on a very low dose of Sertraline. You could see the change in her face very quickly. It was like someone finally turned off all this background noise, and allowed her to live her life without so much stress.

She also did a three-day intensive program, called Fearless Friends, in January of her second grade year. She learned about what fear is and what anxiety is, and did some exposure-based therapy, making her confront that fear. By the end of the program, she had touched a dog.

Facing The Fear

Hannah and I started to go to pet stores (I would call ahead and explain what was going on), and continued doing "exposures." Maybe the first five times, it was just getting her in the door. She would cry and cry, and I would say, "We're not going to leave until you've stood inside the door for five minutes ... 10 minutes ... 15 minutes." Then I'd have them get a puppy out of the cage and I would touch it -- then sit in a play-yard with a fence around it, while she sat on the other side. Then she sat inside, on a chair, without her legs touching the ground and where the dog couldn't touch her because it was all of, like, 3 inches tall. It was months of doing this for several hours at a time, several times a week.

Finally, at one point we found this super mellow Havanese puppy that would just curl up near her, and she started to really like that. She felt the progress, and even started asking for a dog. After that went on for a while -- and when she was comfortable with even the jumpy dogs in the store -- we got Lucy, our rescue dog, last May. She's a little Maltese, who came from a puppy mill and was horribly mistreated. It took us two months to figure out that she's completely deaf, but she's just this cute, clueless, little white dog. Hannah is in love with her, and within a week of getting Lucy, decided that she liked all dogs. It's unreal.

Hannah's still on medication -- we tried taking her off it at the one-year mark and it was clear that she felt the difference and was uncomfortable with it. And she still goes to a therapist quarterly, and sometimes more -- she's going to camp this summer, so she's going to see her doctor three times between now and when she leaves for camp. But she's doing so well.

When you do exposure therapy, no matter how bad things get, you can't quit. You can't end on a bad note. It's humiliating to be in a public place when your kid is freaking out over a dog that weighs 8 ounces, and you feel sad for her and people are looking at you like you're the meanest person in the world. But every single time matters. Once you walk away from an exposure that's gone wrong it's that much harder to make the next one a success.

This account has been edited and condensed.

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