Cynophobia, or the fear of dogs, is a relatively common phobia, though less common than the fear of snakes or spiders. Granted, dogs don’t have eight legs and are never venomous, but they do have fangs and perhaps remind some people more than others of the stories we read as children about hungry wolves that menace young girls and their grandmothers.
This article will discuss the usual and hypothesized causes of cynophobia, and the methods of treatment for overcoming cynophobia that can be performed either in a therapeutic setting or at home.
Afraid of Dogs? How Much?
Some people have a small fear of dogs, but those with a severe fear may be cynophobic. Find out how to control that fear by taking my free 7-minute anxiety test now.
How Do You Know If You Are Cynophobic
There is a difference between preferring cats to dogs and being flat-out terrified of the latter. Not everyone with dog fears is cynophobic. Make sure you take my anxiety test to get an idea of the severity of your anxiety. The following symptoms are what causes a person to be diagnosed with a phobia.
- Excessive and Unreasonable Fear In someone with an excessive and unreasonable fear of dogs, dogs don’t even have to be present for that person to experience panic, because even the anticipation of the presence of dogs can set it off (for example, going to a place where you know dogs could be present). Additionally, the dog need not be menacing or posing an actual threat for the fear response to be present.
- Exposure to Dogs Almost Always Causes Intense Anxiety Every time a dog appears or almost every time, the person will experience an immediate anxiety reaction. This anxiety reaction often takes the form of a panic attack, whose symptoms are detailed below.
- Recognition that Fear is Excessive Adult cynophobes will usually recognize that their fear of dogs is unrealistic and excessive, though the recognition of this fact will not keep them from feeling it. In children, this recognition is less likely.
- Avoidance of Dogs People with cynophobia avoid dogs whenever possible and will go out of their way to do so. The perceived need to avoid dogs may interfere with the person’s daily functioning.
What Causes a Fear of Canines?
Three main possibilities exist as to why a person may be afraid of dogs. As with most specific phobias, cynophobia is most likely to develop during childhood, often between the ages of 10 and 13.
Firstly, they may have had a personal encounter with a dog that ended badly. For example, being bitten, chased, or otherwise frightened or threatened.
Secondly, they may have witnessed another person being bitten, chased, or otherwise threatened by a dog. When this person is a relative or a close friend, and if the person is physically harmed, the experience is particularly likely to cause a phobic attitude towards dogs in the future.
Thirdly, they may have learned their behavior indirectly—from a cynophobic parent, or from the media.
These causes assume that the person did not spend a large amount of time around dogs growing up and avoided dogs in general after the incident. People who do spend time with dogs and do not (or cannot) avoid them are less likely to develop a phobia.
However, it should be noted that some people fear canines without having had any of the above experiences. To explain these people, and to suggest a broader underlying cause of cynophobia, evolutionary psychologists have come up with their own theory.
Evolutionary psychology holds that a fear of dogs evolved in humans as a survival mechanism. Learning to fear and to avoid large predators would have been of use to humans in the days when wild, dangerous and hungry animals were commonplace. This branch of psychology suggests that cynophobia is a combination of genetic and experiential factors.
How to Cure Cynophobia
Learning that most dogs are all bark and no bite can be a hard lesson for a cynophobe to learn. However, there are techniques for overcoming the fear of man’s best, though sometimes worst-trained, friend.
CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is the type of therapy most often used in treating cynophobia. CBT involves several treatment methods that you can recreate for yourself even outside a therapeutic setting. These methods include:
- Exposure Therapy Exposure therapy involves spending time in the presence of the object of your fear, or dogs, in the case of cynophobia. This technique is used to retrain the brain, teaching it that in general, dogs are harmless and do not merit an intense fear reaction. With repeated exposures, the mind becomes more and more accustomed to relaxing in the presence of dogs. If you are performing exposure therapy on yourself, be sure to choose a dog that is extremely friendly and well-trained. Puppies, though cute, may also be untrained and tend to nip, and the last thing you want to do is have another bad experience with a dog.
- Cognitive Restructuring Cognitive restructuring requires you, and a therapist, if they are involved, to do some psychological digging to uncover what negative underlying beliefs and thought patterns are influencing and aggravating your fear of dogs. Once you have identified these, either in conversation with a therapist or by spending some time writing or questioning yourself about your fears, you can work on changing these beliefs and thought patterns, and replacing them with more positive and useful ones.
- Relaxation Training Relaxation training can help you to learn to control your fears by way of useful methods of relaxation such as visualization exercises, controlled breathing routines and positive mantras to help you remember how and why you will be able to stay calm. Joining a meditation group is an excellent way to receive relaxation training outside of therapy.
Dogs are pretty much everywhere—in 2003 it was estimated that in the U.S. alone there were over 62 million of them. This, if nothing else, is a reason to get to work on overcoming your cynophobia today.
I have helped many people overcome their fear of dogs. Start with my free 7-minute anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety and find out how to successfully cure it.
Start the test here, now.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 22, 2017.