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
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