Dogs don’t have eight legs or come in a variety of poisonous types—arguably less scary than spiders. Still, millions of people have a phobia of dogs. They are afraid of dogs for many reasons: maybe a dog chased them as a child, or they know someone who was bitten by a dog, or they themselves were bitten. For whatever reason, people can be scared of dogs to the point where it can affect their lifestyle, including preventing them from going over friends’ homes or taking walks outside. Understanding where this fear stems from and getting acquainted with available treatment techniques can help people with even the biggest fear of dogs overcome this phobia and start feeling friendlier towards man’s best friend.
How Does the Phobia Begin?
Many people have a fear of dogs from a very young age, says Laurie Vitagliano, MD, chief medical officer at Northwell Health’s South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, New York. As with many other anxiety disorders, a person may have a genetic predisposition to developing a phobia such as cynophobia, she says. “But genetics do not necessarily mean that you will develop it,” she says. “Your environment and experience can have a great influence on whether you develop a phobia or not.”
If you’re not sure if you have cynophobia or you simply don’t prefer dogs, ask yourself whether you go out of your way to avoid dogs whenever you can. Does the perceived need to keep dogs out of your life interfere with your daily functioning? Do you feel like you are having a panic attack when you see a dog? Do you recognize that your fear of dogs is not only excessive but also unrealistic? You may have cynophobia.
Symptoms of Cynophobia
The symptoms of cynophobia can vary widely. Some individuals will start to have symptoms even when they are just thinking about potential contact with a dog, while the symptoms in another person begin only when the person is exposed directly to a dog, says Dr. Vitagliano.
Typically, a person with cynophobia begins to experience significant dread, anxiety, and worry at the thought of being exposed to a dog. “They will try to avoid any situation in which they might be around a dog,” Dr. Vitagliano says.
Symptoms can include:
• Increased heart rate
• Shortness of breath
• Crying or screaming
Causes of Cynophobia
Most cases of cynophobia develop during childhood. You may have had an unpleasant encounter with a dog at some point. Even if you weren’t bitten, you may have been chased or felt threatened. Or, even if you weren’t the victim of an unpleasant encounter yourself, you may have seen someone else being chased or bitten. If the person was physically hurt, and if she is a close friend or relative, you’re even more likely to develop a fear of dogs. Last of all, you may have acquired your fear of dogs indirectly—possibly from a parent with cynophobia, or from the media.
A theory devised by evolutionary psychologists holds that a fear of dogs gradually evolved as a survival mechanism many years ago. It would have been useful, in the days when hungry wild predators roamed, to be afraid of dogs and to get out of their way!
Treatment Options for Cynophobia
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very effective at treating cynophobia, says Greta Hirsch, PhD, clinical director at the Ross Center in Washington, D.C., which treats individuals with anxiety and related disorders. “We work with the patient to create a graded fear hierarchy,” she says. “We might start by having the person imagine petting a dog.”
As the exposure brings the person closer to the object of their fear, the person keeps an anxiety journal and writes down the situation that is causing the anxiety level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest.
“For example, for someone with a severe dog phobia, a therapist may start out by exposing them to a picture or a video of a dog and then gradually over time, they would progress to perhaps a toy dog and then an actual dog,” Dr. Vitagliano says. “The time and intensity progression of the exposure will be individualized depending upon the person’s tolerance and symptom severity.”
CBT combined with exposure therapy is very effective with cynophobia, Dr. Vitagliano says. The behavioral part of CBT is to gradually expose the person to the feared object, in this case, dogs. “The cognitive part is looking at the person’s mistaken beliefs, where you think the dog is actually going to bite you,” Dr. Hirsch says. “We work on muscle tension. If a person is tense, then the body sends a signal to the brain that they are in danger.”
Some of the anxiety that comes with cynophobia is anticipatory anxiety, Dr. Hirsch says. “So it is important to recognize the thoughts that are leading to and maintaining the anxiety,” she says.
How to Overcome Fear of Dogs
Educate yourself. Read all you can about dogs. Just learning how rare it is to be bitten by a dog may be comforting, the same way it can be comforting to know how unlikely it is that something bad will happen to your airplane when flying.
Get help. Share with your loved ones that you have an irrational fear of dogs. And ask your health care provider for the name of a therapist who treats phobias and who could help you overcome cynophobia. Recognizing your fear, discussing it with others, and seeking help will allow you to overcome your phobia.