LIFESTYLE

How to Overcome Fear of Dogs: Cynophobia in Adults And Children

How to Overcome Fear of Dogs
John Walton
Written by John Walton

If you think that all dogs are dangerous and you are afraid to go near them, then you need to know how to overcome fear of dogs. Being afraid that any dog will become aggressive and irritable when you see them on the street is more of a psychological problem than a situation that might harm you. In order to be less afraid, you should understand that most of the time you are dealing with a friendly animal, not with a monster that constantly thinks of attacking and biting people.

Of course, it might be difficult for you to learn how to control your emotions and reactions in front of a dog that makes you feel afraid, but it would be ideal for you to do so before your fear turns into a phobia. Even then, there are a few therapeutic methods that can be helpful in your case.

Overcome Fear of Dogs

When you encounter a dog and you feel afraid, your body reacts by exuding a smell that is easily detected by any canine specimen. Also, you might tend to look directly in the dog’s eyes, but that is not something that you should do because a dog thinks you are threatening it. This gesture is a sign of threat for a dog, so it will most probably become more aggressive or get ready to attack you.

A large number of people who are afraid of dogs react poorly in front of them, thus becoming vulnerable or victims without knowing it. This is why you need to be prepared for any dog encounter, fact which will diminish your fear and boost your confidence level.

Symptoms and therapy for cynophobia

In medical terms, fear of dogs is called cynophobia. The most frequent symptoms of cynophobia are dizziness, palpitations, panic attacks, breathing difficulties, nausea, excessive sweating throughout the body, dry mouth, shaking, temporary inability to speak or think clearly, loss of control over the body and fear of death. Animal phobias are among the most common phobias and represent 36% of the reasons why patients seek treatment for phobias.

Although phobias of snakes and spiders are common, cynophobia is mainly caused by the high prevalence of dogs in the world. The criteria for diagnosis of phobia in general include the following behaviors: a person faces persistent fear of an object or situation and his or her exposure to the feared object or situation provokes an immediate anxiety response followed by a panic attack.

Adult patients recognize that the fear is excessive and irrational and they avoid situations that could cause it. Sick people’s fear interferes significantly with their daily activities and juvenile patients have symptoms that persist for at least 6 months. Anxiety, panic attacks or avoidance can be attributed to any person affected by cynophobia.

Aggressive dog

Phobia is defined as a panic attack that could last for a couple of minutes with typical manifestations of intense fear. These events may include palpitations, sweating, tremor, difficulty breathing, desire to escape, fainting, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea or other symptoms.

As with other patients suffering from specific phobias, those suffering from cynophobia can present these symptoms when they meet a dog or simply when they see a picture of a dog, which cannot harm them in any way.

Among the most classic behavior of people with cynophobia is to cross the street when they see a dog approaching or to avoid friends who are dog owners. According to scientists, animal phobias develop in a person’s childhood when he or she is between 5 and 9 years old.

Also, it is said that phobias are more common in women than in men. There are 3 conditions that develop in fear, namely personal experience, observational experience and informational experience.

An example of personal experience is when a dog attacks a person or scares him or her in a way that perceives the whole moment traumatizing. The observational experience consists of seeing someone abused or scared by a dog and fearing not to be put in the same situation at some point in time.

Last, the informational experience is simply achieved by hearing or reading about dangerous situations that involved dogs. All these might not be repeated or even probable in a person’s life, but irrational thinking prevails.

Dealing with fear of dogs

From the psychological point of view, cynophobia can be treated in 3 ways, namely through a systematic desensitization therapy, an exposure therapy and by self-treatment in a controlled environment.

The systematic desensitization therapy involves the use of relaxation techniques in different hypothetical situations. A therapist instructs a patient to visualize a situation when he or she feels threatened by a dog and is deeply afraid.

Depending on the anxiety level reached by the patient, the therapist recommends breathing and relaxation techniques meant for him or her to regain control and calm down. These exercises must be repeated until the patient is capable to handle a real situation. However, the real situation is not simulated, but only imagined.

The exposure therapy is based on confrontation and is considered the most effective treatment for cynophobia, as well as other similar phobias. This involves a systematic and prolonged exposure of a patient to a dog until the patient has an experience that does not include adverse responses. This type of therapy could last a day or a lot more, depending on each patient.

Just sitting in a room with a dog would not be enough, so doctors encourage patients to interact with the dog and to finally pet the dog. Once that purpose is achieved, it is assumed that the patient is cured or has overcome his or her fear of canines.

Trying to overcome fear of dogs

Self-treatment is also done in a controlled environment and under the supervision of a doctor. This consists in writing down terrifying events that involved dogs in a very specific order, from the most terrifying one to the less terrifying one.

The therapist’s next step is to recreate the most terrifying situation from that list and to help the patient by teaching him or her how to react and how to behave in that given situation. Once that is ruled out, the therapist moves on to the next situation listed by the patient. This is a lengthy process, but is also a very effective one.

Children suffering from cynophobia

Fear is one of the first emotions felt by a child. Whether it is fear of the dark, fear of being left alone or animal fear, this feeling is common among children. Although you would like your kid not to be afraid of anything, you should know that fear is a feeling which helps in the normal development process of your child.

A kid lives in a world where imagination and reality are not very differentiated from one another. A child does not know the difference between what is real and what is not, at least not until it reaches a certain age.

Children have many fears that may be related to weather conditions, animals or invented beings. Each element has a message that could produce the feeling of fear in a child’s subconscious.

For example, if your child is afraid of large sized dogs, but loves to play with small sized dogs, this means that he or she is afraid of scary things and fangs that he or she may associate with a negative scene seen in a movie.

On the contrary, if your kid loves to play with dogs, but gets frightened when they run or become too playful, this means he or she is afraid of being attacked. In addition, another possible situation is for parents to transmit their cynophobia to their kids. Children imitate parents, so expect that to happen if you suffer from cynophobia.

Kids should not watch TV unattended in general, but this advice applies in this case too. Images that are related to violent dog attacks or animal attacks can have a negative influence on them and create feelings of fear. However, the good news is that most childhood anxieties pass and kids learn to master their fears.

Also, there are a few safety measures that you can teach your kid to do, namely: to avoid unknown dogs, because nobody knows how they will react; to not approach a dog without the permission of its owner; to caress a dog gently on its head, but without making any sudden moves; to not get close of a pooch if it is sleeping, eating or playing.

Children with fear of dog overcoming

Extremes should not be encouraged. For example, your kid should not pet every dog he or she meets, but should not be afraid of every dog that he or she encounters either. Try to understand your child’s phobia and do not ridicule him or her because of it. Gain the trust of your child by going visit a friend with a very friendly dog and let him or her watch that dog do its daily routine. Encourage contact progressively, not from the beginning. In case of a kid, you can replace a therapist if you are informed enough about this issue and you feel capable to help him or her.

Dos and don’ts in case of dog encounters

Being confident is the most recommended attitude you can have towards a potentially aggressive dog. You do not necessary have to feel confident, but you have to at least look confident. You should stand straight, look calm and mimic confidence.

In this way, you can send a non-verbal message to a dog that threatens you because, in turn, it feels threatened by you as well. Your hands should be in your pockets or normally along your body. Your walking distance should be considerable because you would not want to invade the dog’s personal space.

However, while you walk away, you should not look hesitant, but natural. Looking at the dog should not be obvious, but is necessary if you want to see what it is up to. Some people said that dogs think a person is distracted from the present situation if they are having a conversation on the phone and they tend to naturally ignore that person.

Greeting dogs

Cynophobia generates strong negative emotions and physiological sensations such as a state of tension, rapid heartbeat and feeling hot all over the body. The simplest solution in this case is to intervene at physiological level.

Learning to be relaxed, change your thoughts and emotions are the best steps you can take. You can practice breathing techniques when you are near a dog and imagine yourself in a relaxing environment. A very simple exercise is to tighten your fists for 5 seconds and then to release all the accumulated tension. You can repeat this exercise if you think it is necessary.

You are facing an unknown dog. What should you do?

  • It is best not to pass close to a dog that did not see you prior to your approach
  • Do not try to isolate the dog or direct it to a place where it cannot escape from because if it realizes there is nowhere to run to, it can become aggressive
  • Do not try to caress a dog you do not know before it gets the chance to smell you first or see that you are friends with its owner
  • Do not step back when you see a dog
  • Do not step back if a dog comes towards you
  • Do not look directly in a dog’s eyes
  • Do not stand still, giving the dog a chance to react. Stay calm and continue to walk.
  • Do not scream or get nervous because you might be considered a threat
  • Do not touch a dog that is unattended
  • Do not try to run from a dog because it might be faster than you
  • Do not run because a dog will likely follow you thinking you are playing
  • Remain indifferent for as long as you can. If a dog sees you have no interest in interacting with it, it will do nothing.
  • Cross the street if you see a dog from a considerable distance to avoid contact
  • Try to be indifferent, ignore it and act like it is not there
  • If a dog comes near you just to smell you, you should let it
  • Speak to yourself, trying to calm down
  • If you trip, raise your knees to your chest and put your arms over your neck. A dog will have no interest in attacking you if you seem silent and motionless

If a dog is growling, its fangs are exposed and it is staring at you, it is most probably ready to attack you.

There is no method that can protect you from aggressive dogs that is 100% effective, but you can try to avoid conflict by staying calm, walking away and ignoring. Theoretically, a dog doesn’t attack unless it has a good reason. So, try not to give it a reason.

Dog growling

In addition, you can carry pepper spray that can give you a few moments to walk away from a dog that wants to attack you once you use it. Besides that, there are numerous electronic devices that can keep dogs away, which function based on ultrasounds.

In case you buy one of those, remember to also buy strong, effective batteries for it. You can activate it whenever you feel necessary or you see a dog or more approaching you.

HALT Dog Repellant Spray

Here are some examples of pepper spray that you can purchase and use against dogs: dog repellant spray, Sabre dog spray, pepper spray with key chain holster, dog Dazer II Ultrasonic dog deterrent, pet parade, electronic dog repellent and trainer.

What should you do if bitten?

If an unknown dog bites you and your wound is superficial, it does not bleed and it will most probably look like a bruise, then wash it with antibacterial soap and water and apply a local disinfectant. Protect the area with sterile bandage for a few days.

Conversely, if your lesion bleeds a lot, you should apply a disinfectant and go to the hospital to get your anti-rabies shot. The dog that has bitten you should also be under medical supervision for a month. However, you should first worry about yourself and then call those in charge of animals to report what happened.

Conclusions for cynophobic people

If you are a person who suffers from cynophobia, you should understand that you are not really afraid of dogs, but you are afraid of their bite. Your anxiety might occur automatically when you see a dog, but that is only a way your body reacts because it associates the dog bite and the pain of a dog bite with the simple image of a dog.

Besides the practical steps you can take in order to protect yourself from dogs that are really aggressive and dangerous, you can also work on your mind and accept one of the therapeutic methods that can teach you to let dogs be part of your life and to differentiate the harmful ones from the friendly ones.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Lisa Almat

    When I was a child, I was bitten by a huge dog, and since that I’m afraid of them(( And I don’t agree with the words in the article “give a chance to smell you first”, because it’s harmful for your nerves and not everybody could stand straight, while dog is smelling you. Besides, it can feel your fear and become agressive… No, thanks, I’d better go along the other side of the street))

    • Thank you for sharing, Lisa. It’s true, the fear can be overwhelming sometimes, but you might get in the situation when you can’t cross the street and you’d have to face your fear. That’s why it’s best to practice with dogs you know won’t bite you (a friend’s dog or a dog that was thoroughly trained).

  • Seth Weaseley

    My friend has never managed to overcome her fear of huge dogs. She is not afraid of puppies and small breeds; however, when she finds herself in a room with an adult dog, she would leave. I might share this article with her…

    • John Walton

      Share away, Seth! Fear of dogs is fairly common but it can be easy to overcome as long as you have the right information and emotional support to beat it.

  • Leela

    I have been scared of dogs for a very long time and I don’t know why I am. My parents tried to make me better by taking me on walks where there were dogs and thinking I would get used to them. needless to say I have panic attacks on walks and will lock myself in the car etc. to avoid them. It is debilitating. See, I think having dogs is seen differently here than in other places. Dogs are effectively wolves or foxes and no-one would walk them and expect people to love them. I think the message needs to be to dog owners that yes, we respect your pets and you, but you need to show us the same courtesy.
    I mean, when you’re walking by the side of a canal and you see a dog, your reaction shouldn’t be “Can I swim or not?” Then being shock still as the thing walks by and the owner passes you patronising glances.
    I think an effective dog/owner repellent would be lovely. If you had a phobia and were told, get a grip, I wonder how long it would take you to want the same?
    If I’d like dogs, I’d say you have a great blog. Keep up the good work!

    • John Walton

      Welcome to our website, Leela! We have several clients before that have been desensitized with the presence of a harmless puppy and eventually cancelled out the phobia. However, hearing your story, there is something that needs to start from within. You should decide to overcome a fear, which is not limited to just the fear of dogs. Feel free to message us if you need more help!

  • VL

    I used to have a dog of my own, but I wasn’t scared of him though he scratched me a few times and nearly bit me. I knew he was my pet and so I had no fear. But all along I have been scared of any others dog, mostly the ones on the streets (I live in India where stray dogs just hang around on the streets). I feel so restless when I see a dog especially in a narrow lane, that I stop, literally stare at the dog and if there’s no one around, I walk all around the block to reach my place by a different route. At times I’ve gone up and down a few times because there has been at least one dog on all the possible routes to my destination. Just hearing dogs barking outside my house makes me so restless that I decide to stay home and not go out of the house for the day. I know so well that this fear is only a mental block, but I am finding it really hard to get out of this fear. Someone suggested that I feed the dogs so that they are friendly. So I started feeding one of them with biscuits and now this dog likes me so much that he comes running towards me whenever he sees me, it terrifies me, and sometimes he comes with another dog following him and that scares me all the more. I’m so confused and I don’t know what to do.

    • John Walton

      You can start small by starting all over again. Verbalize your concerns to your veterinarian and acclimate yourself in pet stores, or even the park where the dogs come and go. Socialization, just like in dogs, can help you overcome this fear. It can be a challenging moment, but I am confident that you can overcome it.

  • Finesse Hunter

    Really good read. I would love to become a puppy owner but my fear cripples me.

    • John Walton

      Desensitization will help you overcome this fear. Owning a puppy can be a very rewarding experience if you’ll just allow it to be part of your life.

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