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Fear of Dogs Is Real but Treatable

scary dog shadow
We may call dogs man's best friend, but not everybody sees them that way. id-work/Getty Images

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Everybody loves dogs, except the people who don't. For those with cynophobia (fear of dogs), their distaste for canines isn't a preference, it's a real, and sometimes debilitating, fear. For some people — an estimated 5 percent of Americans — just the sight of a dog can bring on a full-blown panic attack.

Imagine, then, how severely cynophobia can impact a sufferer's social life: Their fear of dogs can turn a neighborhood stroll into an ordeal, not to mention the problems that come with visiting the homes of friends or family members with a pooch, or even going out to public places where dogs might show up. Even a rigorously trained service dog in the grocery store can make someone with cynophobia feel panicky.

But how do we develop a fear of man's best friend, and what treatments are out there to offer relief from a lifestyle-cramping terror of canines?

Why We're Afraid

The reasons someone might become afraid of dogs to begin with are diverse, but cultural influences like religion, race or geography might contribute to it. Often an individual's previous personal experience with dogs plays a big role in their fear — maybe they've experienced a dog attack themselves or witnessed a dog attacking someone else. But sometimes fears like cynophobia have nothing to do with cultural conditioning or traumatic personal experiences.

"Some people may fear dogs not because of any direct or secondary experience with an actual dog attack, but because of the chemical imbalance that causes the development of anxiety disorders, like a specific phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)," says Kasey Brown, a therapist at the Georgia Center for OCD and Anxiety.

Regardless of what the root cause of someone's cynophobia is, the treatment for it — and, indeed most other intense fears — is basically the same: exposure. Avoidance of the feared situation or object does nothing for the treatment of a specific anxiety, and it follows that small children who grow up with a dog in the house are much less likely to develop cynophobia than those who rarely ever meet a dog. But this doesn't mean a therapist would suggest to a cynophobic person that they should go hang out at the dog shelter or take a walk around a dog park right off the bat.

Mastering the Fear

For decades, research has shown cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and specifically a technique called exposure and response prevention (ERP), to be the most effective therapy to treat anxiety disorders like phobias. In order to achieve a state where a fear no longer dictates one's daily activities, it's important to eventually "face" whatever is frightening. CBT addresses both the thoughts and behaviors that perpetuate fear and anxiety — after all, every fear has beliefs behind it regarding the likelihood or seriousness of dangers posed by feared situations or things.

ERP, a type of CBT, involves slowly confronting a fear until it gradually becomes less intense. The method begins with managing the expectation of what the treatment for their phobia is, and what it isn't:

"As an anxiety therapist, I will never tell anyone that their anxiety — whatever form it might take —  is 'curable'," Brownsays. "Biologically, that's not how anxiety and its treatment work. It is absolutely possible, however, for someone to get to the point where they are living with a fear at a very manageable level."

For someone looking to master a fear of dogs, the first step is to assess their level of fear on a scale of zero to 10 (where 10 is debilitating). It's important to let the person know that it's possible to lower that level of fear to a one or two, even if it starts at a 10 — eventually they'll get to the point where an errant fearful thought might pop up occasionally, but they will be able to move past it pretty easily. The goal is that their life is not dictated by fear of dogs.

Though therapists and clinics that specialize in the treatment of cynophobia suggest a variety of strategies for taking the edge off a fear of dogs, from education about how most dogs are not dangerous to developing mindfulness techniques to manage anxiety, the experts agree exposure to a real, live, friendly dog is the treatment most likely to help someone with crippling cynophobia.

Take it Slow

"If someone comes in to therapy to try and master their fear of dogs, we will rank-order a list of triggers that they currently experience from least anxiety-provoking to the very most triggering," Brownsays. "We'll start with the trigger that's easiest to handle and move our way up the list."

The fears might include being around dogs, hearing a dog bark, and walking in a neighborhood where dogs may not be fenced or on leashes — but also seemingly small things like seeing dogs on TV, seeing dog hair on someone's couch, or hearing a story about someone's pet. In ERP therapy, the treatment starts with the dog association that seems least scary — maybe hearing a story about a dog. The therapist might then try introducing cartoon dog characters, moving on to screen shots from a live action movie with a dog scene, then perhaps watching scenes of a docile dog in a movie.

"We start at the level where the client feels comfortable enough to start, and very gradually and slowly — and only with the client leading the step-up — move up the hierarchy list and tackle the more anxiety-provoking triggers," Brownsays.

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