Commanding Your Fear of Dogs to Heel
by: Ron Ayalon
Cynophobia is the clinical term for an irrational fear of dogs and it is not a pleasant feeling to experience. Imagine being a mother of a two-year old child and you are walking in the park, pushing your baby along in his stroller, when suddenly you see a dog ahead. His tail is up and wagging, his tongue is lolling to the side as he pants gently, his eyes seem to twinkle and his ears are alert as he looks about for the tennis ball he is supposed to bring back to his human friend.
You panic. Your eyes begin to water, your chest seizes, lungs unable to hold air with breath coming in short, tight bursts. Every muscle in your body tenses with your fight or flight response kicking in and you run! Not far from your car, you lock yourself in safely, tears streaming down your cheeks, stomach in knots, breathing is painful and you look outside… and watch full of despair, yet unable to act, as your baby girl simply sits, alone, in her stroller. If this sounds outrageous, it might surprise you to know it is a true story and one with a happy ending. The terrified mother's mother-in-law was also accompanying them, so baby was safe. For an even happier ending, the young mother was able to overcome her massive phobia of dogs in only eight sessions, a very quick turnaround.
Phobias are anxiety attacks, often brought about by a trigger phrase or visual stimuli, like seeing a dog, which is not based in reality and has very little to do with logical reaction and everything to do with how your brain interprets events or possible events. Usually caused by some past traumatic event, like being attacked by a dog when a toddler, these fears get carried with you and rarely fade away without help. Anyone who does not have cynophobia would have noticed the friendly demeanor of the dog, known there was no danger and walked on by with little more than a smile in its direction. Indeed some may have stopped, pet the friendly dog and played catch for a moment with his owner.
Understand that irrational fear is just that - irrational. It does not go away by just telling yourself that you are being silly. It does not go away by facing dogs head on, it goes away with a bit of help once the brain has been re-taught to assess the situation. This is often called cognitive therapy and it works quite well. There are other methods, too, but cognitive therapy is quick and usually easy.
It begins with logically showing the ridiculousness of the expected outcome, not the fear itself, as it is far from funny. If the fear is that the dog will attack, maim and kill, then that is what the brain is absolutely convinced will happen. But what of those times when the sufferer has seen a dog and nothing happened? Had s/he seen a dog before? The answer of course is yes, and yet s/he is still alive. Ah, says the anxious victim, but that is because I ran and locked myself in a car. At this point, it is up to the counselor to expose the fear, argue otherwise and offer control of the situation by supplying the sufferer with alternative thoughts, positive ones, to replace the negative and also teach some coping mechanisms, like deep breathing and exercises to release tension.
Eventually, the cynophobe is reintroduced to dogs and, now understanding the fear and having devices with which to cope, a new dimension to life is found. This explanation was slightly over simplified, but not by much. With the correct help, the fear can be combated more easily than ever expected, increasing quality of life and empowering the anxiety sufferer to conquer their fear forever.
To give this story an even happier ending: the woman went on to one day own dogs of her own!