27-year-old Aisha, my childhood friend, plans a sleepover at my place once a month. DIY Pizzas, doing pawdicure for my dog, Selfie (Oh, we love painting her nails), terrace camping and watching a scary movie, is our favourite way of spending the night together. But, this could not happen till quite a while because of Aisha’s extreme fear of dogs. She would never enter my house if the dogs were around and would beg me to lock them up in any room far from her. Soon, I realized Aisha was terrified of dogs, but locking up the dogs would never be a logical solution. So, I decided to talk to her and find a permanent solution for her fear of dogs. Certainly, in her childhood, Aisha had had a negative experience with a dog in her locality, and the very thought of it kept feeding her fear.
1. FEAR OF DOGS
Do you have a fear of dogs, too, like Aisha? Cynophobia, a clinical term for fear of dogs, is defined as the illogical and uncontrollable fear of dogs. It is one of the top 5 phobias most common in people. Different people have different levels of fear towards dogs. Some may need to be in the presence of a dog to feel the fear, others simply need to be thinking of an event with a dog. Fairly, millions of people are afraid of dogs for a variety of reasons: maybe they were chased by a dog in their childhood or were accidentally bitten by one, or they know someone who was bitten. Unexpected events can be quite traumatic and can lead to fear responses that may last well into adulthood. Indeed, these reflexive responses of panicked humans can be risky for them as well as the dog on-site.
2. SYMPTOMS OF FEAR OF DOGS
Like all phobias, the fear of dogs can vary widely from person to person depending on the intensity of the fear. Some might fear only large breed dogs, and some may be uncomfortable around dogs, but may be perfectly normal to view dogs in videos or pictures. At times, some individuals may start to show symptoms even when they are just thinking about an event with a dog. Typically, a person with a fear of dog begins to experience significant anxiety, and worry when near to dogs or at the thought of being exposed to a dog. They will try to avoid any situation in which they might be around a dog. Common reactions and symptoms include:
-Increased heart rate
-Shortness of breath
-Crying or screaming
-Attempting to hide
-Freezing in terror
3. WHY DO SOME PEOPLE HAVE A FEAR OF DOGS?
When kids encounter a dog for the first time, it gives them a feeling of surprise and suddenness, unless their parents talk to them about dogs, show them videos or have introduced them to dogs at some point in their life. It is the unknown and unexpected that contributes to a fear of dogs. Whatever the reason, people can be terrified of dogs to the point where it can affect their life and functioning, preventing them from going over friends’ homes or walking in a neighbourhood that has dogs. Understanding the root cause of this fear and following simple techniques can help people with even the greatest fear of dogs, overcome this phobia and start feeling more friendly towards dogs.
Like most animal phobias, fear of dogs is most commonly caused by a negative experience with a dog, especially during childhood. Both children and dogs are naturally curious, and you may have been jumped on by an overexcited puppy or growled at by a large watchdog as you approached a fence.
A large dog can make a major impression on a small child, even if no actual attack occurred.
4. DOGS ARE ALSO AFRAID OF PEOPLE
People aren’t alone in their fears. If the problem is magnified, one can come to know that dogs can be afraid of people, too, especially kids. Yes, a lot of people freak dogs out, especially kids under the age of 5. Quite often, kids scream and yell at eye level. They swing their arms or legs in a wild and uncontrolled way. And at that age they move in a very unpredictable way. Some adults, especially who are scared of dogs, usually shout out of fright, which in turn scares the dogs. One needs to be very careful about such dog-human introductions and interactions.
5. HOW TO OVERCOME FEAR OF DOGS IN KIDS?
First, understand the state of your child’s fear. Spiders, squeaky toys, random objects, public speaking, kids are usually a little nervous about something. And although our logic tells us a tiny insect or a school stage won’t actually hurt us, fear isn’t logical. So, logical talk isn’t going to help any kid through his fear. This means, the first step to help your child overcome his fear of dogs, is to recognize and accept the fear.
Never say this: Words like, “Pet that dog on his chest, or else he might bite you” or “Don’t be afraid, this dog doesn’t bite”, can unintentionally reinforce your child’s fear of dogs. Associating unfavourable words like ‘bite, don’t be afraid’ can frame a child’s view of dogs as dangerous. Instead, use positive and favourable words like ‘buddy, friend, play’ to create an impression of dogs as new friends to meet. Remember to choose your words wisely.
Take puppy steps: There is no reason to force a kid to be around dogs right away. Such actions may backfire and just increase your child’s fear. Instead, gradually introduce your child to dogs, starting with picture books, funny dog videos, TV, dog-centric movies, etc. Then take an approach to see dogs from a distance, perhaps in a park or visiting a dog-show every now and then. Be sure you gradually increase the intensity of the exposure according to your child’s pace of acceptance.
Adult Dog Mantra: When your child is ready for the next step, find a calm, adult dog to start with and not a puppy. Like little kids, puppies are unpredictable, wiggly, excitable, and when they’re very young “they still have the hard-wired exploring behaviour to bite and chew things. Also, you can also enquire about groups or cafes that do doggy meets for humans.
Petting: Once your child is ready to go for it and touch a dog, it is advisable to keep the dog occupied and let your child pet the dog’s body instead of the more-intimidating spots. (Read ahead: Tips to pet a dog.)
Prepare for the sniffs, licks and mouthing: When a child is ready and volunteers to interact with the dog, parents need to educate their kids about natural dog behaviour. In this way they will be prepared and easily understand that dogs discover, check you out and express their love by sniffing, licking and playful gentle biting. That continuous sniff, quick smooch and lick is a dog’s way of giving your child a thumbs up, or the canine way of getting to know you better.
Kindly note: Normally, kids are fascinated by dogs. Teaching your child to always ask first before approaching a dog, will serve as a great tip. More importantly, a great deal of safe and happy interactions between kids and dogs depends on teaching kids to be gentle and respectful. So be sure to instill basic manners in your child and discourage actions like pulling a dog’s tail, pushing, hitting, or teasing a dog for fun. Additionally, one of the things you must not do to overcome your child’s fear of dogs is to get a dog at home. It doesn’t work as the dog is all over the place, and this is too much too soon for a kid with a fear of dogs.
Tips to Pet a Dog: Dogs have individual spots where they like to be petted; common areas are under the chin, on the back of the neck around the collar, chest and belly, and base of the tail area. Most dogs feel intimidated and dislike being touched on the face, head, ears, legs, paws and tail. Never pet or touch a sleeping dog.
6. HOW ADULTS CAN OVERCOME A FEAR OF DOGS
If you’re an adult and have developed a fear of dogs, it may be due to these 3 reasons: You may have had a nasty experience with a dog or may have witnessed something terrible happen to someone because of a dog. Or else, unknowingly, you might have been taught to be afraid of dogs by someone else, such as their parents. Maybe when growing up, an elder in your house always told you stories about people she knew who had been attacked by dogs. Unconsciously, the fears she had, transferred to you.
While it is possible to overcome a fear of dogs, one must keep in mind that we need to have patience. It won’t go away instantly, it will take work and effort on your part.
A DIY way to minimize the risk of developing Cynophobia is to engage with a dog immediately after a negative encounter with a dog. If you have a neighbour or friend who has a well-behaved dog, ask if you may spend some time with his dog. Other ideas include: reading and learning about dogs. By just knowing how rare it is to be bitten by a dog, one may feel comforted. Also, let your loved ones know that you have an irrational fear of dogs, and work together for a solution. And if these theories don’t work, then you may want to ask your health care expert about therapy.
A Cynophobia Therapist will be able to help you successfully overcome your fear and anxiety through Psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy are two therapies used to identify, analyse and overcome a fear of dogs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you transform the way you think and teach you skills that will help you overcome your fear. Sometimes therapists also use Exposure Therapy along with CBT to help you regain control of your emotions when in the presence of dogs. The steps in CBT involve:
Understand how your brain comprehends a specific situation, rather than the actual situation. For instance, you’re not actually afraid of the dog in front of you, rather, your brain is taking the dog to be a threat, which is in turn causing you to be afraid. CBT helps you to identify these thoughts, understand that they are illogical, and slowly help you to reframe your thoughts about a specific situation with dogs.
Analyze the thoughts about the trigger events in smaller parts, rather than dealing with the big issue all at once. Once you have a strong understanding of the particular events that trigger your phobia, you need to analyze your thoughts when this fear shows up. You may need to answer questions like: What are you telling yourself? What are your beliefs about that particular event the moment it occurs?
Evaluate the behavior that results from the beliefs in this step, since, now you have a better understanding of the thoughts and beliefs when that trigger happens. Begin analyzing how these thoughts and beliefs actually make you feel and behave. In short, see what is the fear making you do?
Scrutinize the final answers. You finally have all the answers of ‘what triggers your fear’, ‘why your fear is triggered’, and ‘how you react to that fear’. Now it is time to conclude if your fear is rational or irrational. According to the findings, the current therapy will be associated with the next.
A small example of an Exposure Therapy plan to overcome your fear of dogs is as follows:
Step 1 – drawing a dog on a piece of paper.
Step 2 – reading about dogs.
Step 3 – looking at photos of dogs.
Step 4 – looking at videos of dogs.
Step 5 – looking at dogs through a closed window.
Step 6 – looking at dogs through a partially opened window.
Step 7 – looking at dogs through an open window.
Step 8 – looking at dogs through a doorway.
Step 9 – looking at dogs from outside the doorway.
Step 10 – looking at a dog on a leash in the next room.
Step 11 – looking at a dog on a leash in the same room.
Step 12 – sitting beside a dog.
Step 13 – petting a dog.
The average person is far more likely to encounter dogs in daily life. Avoiding dogs can be nearly impossible because dogs are so popular as pets and companions. If you do so, you might find yourself limiting contact with dog owners, even to the point of avoiding family gatherings, and meeting friends or making new ones. Additionally, you may be unable to enjoy normal outdoor activities such as morning walks, walking in the park, family picnics or camping since most dog lovers bring their dogs for these activities. Over time, your normal routine and behaviour may become restricted and odd as you attempt to prevent any contact with a dog. This can lead to a phobia and other anxiety disorders. Take the plunge and you will know, there’s a reason dogs are called ‘man’s best friend’. And, if nothing helps, this fact will surely do:
“Dogs do not have venom like snakes nor do they have eight legs like spiders. Hence, these furry love-bugs are arguably not scary at all.”