Seattle reportedly has more dogs than children, so this is not just a hypothetical issue for us. Dogs are everywhere, and often off-leash, though they're not supposed to be. MG's common response to the sight of a friendly dog trotting right towards her is to shriek and try to climb up the nearest parent. The dog's human companion, more often than not, will urge the dog forward at this point, protesting to us, "She doesn't have to be scared! My dog's really friendly! S/he LOVES children!" Which never fails to terrify MG further, and just pisses RW and me off. (In my more charitable moments I try to remember that these people are just trying to be helpful, but really, it's not the best way to help a kid get over her phobia.)
I used to make a big show of petting various dogs myself, cooing over how cute and un-scary they were, and generally trying to coax MG out of her fear, but that just seemed to add big dollops of edginess and shame to her terror, so I dropped it in favor of murmuring every once in a while that I understood she was scared of dogs, but it might help her to keep in mind that almost all dogs are friendly and safe, especially when they're with their humans. I figured everyone has their thing, and if that's hers, fine. We don't have a dog, MG's allergic anyway, and it wasn't a big priority of ours.
So when the three of us went to do Tashlich by the canal last month and a tiny unleashed dog ran yip-yip-yipping over to us, prompting the usual scream/climb-up-parent/owner-protest-of-friendliness combo, I didn't think much of it. We pulled out our bread, threw our various sins into the water (or, more accurately, into the mouths of many excited ducks), and got back in the car, full of virtuous resolutions for the coming year.
On the way home, apropos of nothing, MG announced, "I want to stop being scared of dogs."
"Oh!" I said, stunned, "Wow, that's great!"
"I think I'll stop being scared of them if I learn to appreciate them more."
"That sounds like a good idea," I agreed.
"I'm going to learn to love dogs. Then they won't scare me."
I said something to the effect that loving dogs was an impressive goal, but that not running away screaming might be a good place to start.
"I think I should start with some easy dogs," she mused. "And then move on to harder dogs. Like [our 5-year-old neighbor] L's little puppy."
We agreed that our friend E.'s big, calm, mellow dog might be a good starter dog. What with busy schedules and rainy days, it wasn't until this afternoon that Mermaid Girl had her first appreciation session, with E., her toddler daughter Little Latke, and their dog Anonymous Dog.
It wasn't much to look at: we met at a park, MG and Little Latke swung on the swings while Anonymous Dog watched, and then we all fed the dog treats. MG couldn't bring herself to hold her own hand under the dog's licky tongue, but she did put her palm under mine while I held it out with the treat in it. And she stood near the dog for quite a while without crying, whining, jumping on me, or running away.
That was plenty, for the first time.
Actually, just coming up with the idea on her own was plenty, I thought.