Imagine walking down the road. Suddenly, you are confronted by a large, snarling dog heading directly for you. Try to imagine your level of fear. If you were once terrorized by a dog earlier in life, multiply that fright by a factor of ten. Your heart would race, your body would start to shake and your breathing would become shallow and rapid. These reactions are caused by a surge of hormones, such as adrenaline, often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’. It’s how your body reacts to a perceived threat, and it’s totally normal.
Some people, however, have an abnormal reaction to dogs, even if the dogs in question aren’t doing anything threatening, much less actively frightening. They feel frozen in fear and utterly helpless just walking past a well-behaved dog. Some are panicked only of certain breeds. At the far end of the spectrum are folks who are so terrified by dogs that they cannot even speak about canines without experiencing sheer terror. This irrational fear of dogs is termed cynophobia. Although spider and snake phobias are more prevalent, cynophobia is probably more common than most people think. In fact, this condition affects tens of millions of Americans.
Like many phobias, the fear of dogs is typically triggered by a negative experience, often during childhood. Some people may even block the precipitating event from their memory … all that remains is an overwhelming fear of dogs.
Many of us have been jumped on by an exuberant puppy or growled at by a protective watchdog. When this happens to a child during their formative years, the impacts can be long-lasting. The relatively large size of dogs compared to children, combined with an overactive imagination and a general lack of knowledge about canine behavior, can be fertile breeding ground for a full-blown phobia later in life.
The risk of cynophobia is higher if a relative or friend was attacked by a dog, or if a parent exhibited an unhealthy fear of canines.
Sufferers of this phobia experience fear that is very much out of their control. That is because when a person suffering from cynophobia thinks about, much less sees a dog, the fear system in the sub-brain (the automatic part of your brain that runs the show) takes over and secretes chemicals that alert the nervous system that there is DANGER! The threat feels so real that the brain treats the mere presence of a dog as an imminent peril, even though the perceived threat is not congruent with reality. People who suffer from cynophobia can live in constant fear, limiting their lives as a result.
Fortunately, cynophobics generally respond very well to treatment. In fact, some people actually report just ‘growing out of it’, especially after positive experiences with dog.
If you suffer from cynophobia, take heart - you are not alone! I recommend working with a psychological professional with expertise in dealing with phobias to help remove the fear and encourage helpful coping skills. With a bit of work and the right assistance, you can overcome this debilitating phobia.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks