Overcoming Fears

When your first child is born, you pour all of your love and affection into them and you put their wellbeing first.  My daughter was born thirteen years ago with delayed development and learning disabilities, and naturally, I wanted to do everything I possibly could to help her.  In my home country, therapy for children in my daughter’s situation was limited.  Once she began walking, my husband and I were told to take her home and try our best to teach her ourselves.  Discontent with this level of care, we made the difficult decision to relocate to the United States where medicine in this field is more advanced and readily available.  Despite having to learn a new language and upend our lives, we were committed to getting our daughter the best care possible.

After we arrived in the U.S. and began seeing doctors, my daughter was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.  The more we learned about her conditions, the better we understood how she perceives the world. This allowed us to appreciate what she goes through and seek out better care to help her improve.  She needed a lot of help to perform everyday tasks most kids learn easily, such as tying her shoes, combing her hair, and even jumping rope.  We saw occupational therapists and psychologists, and her abilities improved immensely.  A few years ago, we found the Pediatric Developmental Center (PDC) at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.  With the help of doctors and occupational and behavioral therapists at the PDC, my daughter has made dramatic improvements as she has grown up.  The right care has made a huge difference for her.

In spite of this success, there were still some serious hurdles for my daughter to overcome.  One of my biggest concerns was her extreme fear of dogs.  At the mere sight of a dog, she would panic and run off—sometimes directly into the street!  There are many dogs in Chicago, so this was a frequent occurrence, and I often worried that if it happened at the wrong time, she would be hit by a car.   We discussed this with her behavioral therapist, Aveline Ajalan, and she agreed that, due to the danger this behavior put our daughter in, her fear of dogs should be the first thing we addressed.

We started by working with a stuffed dog, and my daughter was even scared of that at first.  She became comfortable with the stuffed dog, but that did not translate to dogs on the street.  Aveline explained to us that she could bring in therapy dogs to work on this issue.  We weren’t very familiar with the concept of therapy dogs and were surprised to hear we’d have the opportunity to work with a real, live dog in our therapy sessions.  

That’s when we met Callie Cozzolino from Canine Therapy Corps.  Callie has two certified therapy dogs, Rou and Swindle.  The first time we saw Rou, we were so nervous, and our daughter was so scared.  But, we quickly learned that Rou is a very good dog, and that we’d be able to take things at our daughter’s pace, working our way up as she became more confident.  During that first session, Rou was in a different room behind a glass wall. He alternated between lying down quietly and performing some tricks.  My daughter could see him, but the glass barrier made her feel safer.  At first, we’d just have her walk past the glass. Then, we worked up to her staying near the glass for longer and longer periods of time, and eventually, we got rid of the barrier altogether. My daughter is a big fan of the movie Frozen. So, to help extend the amount of time she was near Rou, he would hold signs in his mouth with quotes and characters from the movie on them.  As my daughter read the signs, she’d get closer and stay closer to him without even realizing it.  

After a few visits seeing Rou through the glass, we took the next step and started letting Rou into the room while my daughter was working on other activities.  Sometimes he’d sit in a chair just like a person. This way, she knew there was a dog in the room, but her mind was focused elsewhere.  The next step was to take our daughter’s newfound skills outside. That’s when Swindle also started getting in on the fun. Callie would alternate between her two dogs as often as possible.  

All the while, Aveline taught our daughter about how safe we are with dogs on the street, and she helped her develop constructive coping mechanisms.  For example, Aveline told my daughter that if she got scared, she should just hold my hand, keep walking, and take deep breaths to calm down. She also helped her understand that it is more dangerous to run away, especially since most dogs on the street are safely tethered to their owners with leashes.  

My daughter was finally making real progress with her fear of dogs.  But, seeing a dog in a controlled environment, surrounded by people (and now two dogs) she knew and felt safe with wasn’t the same as seeing a dog unexpectedly on the street.  In order to help her with that, Canine Therapy Corps organized a “therapy dog parade” just for my daughter.  Six therapy dogs met my daughter and husband outside of the PDC, with Callie and Aveline there for support as well.  They walked down the street as we might on a normal day, while the therapy dogs and their handlers crisscrossed around them.  We were thrilled to discover that she did not run away once, even when the dogs got close or passed her from behind.  She even stopped some of the handlers to chat with them and ask them about their dogs!  

I still can’t believe how much progress my daughter has made on what was once a severe safety concern.  She’s still a little nervous around dogs on the street, but she no longer bolts away. We simply remind her of Aveline’s tips to help her calm down, hold her hand, and keep walking.  During a recent trip to the airport, we even encountered a working Transportation Security Administration dog. She was calm and confident enough to point it out to me, “Mom, look! It’s a BIGGGG DOG!!!” she exclaimed while continuing to stand in line. 

It’s amazing how much better she is now, and we are so appreciative to Canine Therapy Corps for their help.  I don’t think we could have made so much progress with my daughter’s issue without the help of their well-behaved, loving therapy dogs showing her how safe and patient dogs can be.  I’m so glad that we’ve nearly eliminated this dangerous issue from her life in just a few short months.  Please support Canine Therapy Corps and animal-assisted therapy so that others like us can benefit from these amazing creatures!