Cynophobia: Why Are Some People Afraid of Dogs?

  • 01/11/2016
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As a website dedicated to “the love of dog,” it may seem unusual to present an essay on cynophobia, or the fear of dogs. Nothing dog-related is beyond our remit, and we accord all due respect to everything involving our canine companions. Phobias are frequently dismissed as baseless, or even “silly” fears. Broad, sweeping generalizations like this too easily discount the all-too-real lived experiences that give rise to these fears. Fears can be necessary, even useful, reactions to the world around us.

They help protect us and keep us calm in the face of things, situations, or abstract concepts that unnerve and unsettle us. The size or disposition of a dog can be of little consequence to someone who suffers from cynophobia. People who are afraid of dogs are no less common than those whose anxieties are triggered by more widely acknowledged phenomena such as enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) or large crowded ones (agoraphobia). Let’s take dog phobias seriously, explore how they arise and manifest, and examine some approaches to treatment.

What is cynophobia?

Cynophobia is referred to as a “specific phobia,” meaning it’s oriented toward a particular object, concept, or scenario that provokes nervous or anxious feelings. As opposed to fear of animals or pets in general, cynophobia manifests as a regular and persistent anxiety when dogs are present, viewed, or even simply invoked. Some specific animal phobias may “make more sense” to us; such as those involving rodents, insects, or reptiles. Their alien appearances, strange patterns of movement, their reputations as bearers of poison or carriers of disease makes these fears seem more “natural.”

A cynophobic person does not need to be in the immediate presence of a dog to experience a reaction. Any canine-involved stimulus, from seeing a dog across the street to cute puppy videos can be enough to inspire intense, visceral reactions. These reactions are described in the literature as “excessive,” “irrational,” and “unreasonable.” These terms may sound judgmental, but are intended to measure the degree and intensity of fear experienced. Think of something that frightens you; whether it’s heights, clowns, or the dark. These may be more commonplace or accepted, but they are not more or less “reasonable” than a fear of dogs.

Why are people afraid of dogs?

There are no fixed or definite answers to this question, nor a specific moment or period of life when it begins. Fear and the experience of it is extremely subjective. There is not a single cause; cynophobia may arises due to a combination of circumstances, and its severity may depend on how early it starts. Depending on which source you consult, dog phobia in children can take root as early as age 5 or as late as age 13. It can last into adulthood if untreated, but is not limited to children or tweens. Fear of dogs in adults has taken hold of people as old as 20 years of age, and persisted well into middle age.

What causes cynophobia? The answers are no clearer or more precise. There are general categories, of course; these include:

  • Experiential: a direct personal experience, be it a dog attack, a bite, or even being jumped on and licked by a particularly enthusiastic dog. The more involved a direct experience is, the greater the likelihood that the surrounding events and aftermath might reinforce or deepen the foundations of a lasting phobia.
  • Observational: seeing an event happen, especially when it happens to a close friend or family member can be sufficiently traumatic to inspire a lasting fear of dogs.
  • Learned: hearing about a negative event can initiate a dog phobia. It can be as remote and distant from an actual experience with a dog as reading a newspaper article or watching a particularly violent or disturbing scene in a horror movie.

Learned cynophobia can also be fostered by common misconceptions about breeds like the Pit Bull and Rottweiler. When entire cities introduce breed-specific legislation, they reaffirm urban legends that some dog breeds are naturally or inherently more vicious than others. These learned and repeated ideas also underlie manufacture phenomena like “black dog syndrome.”  They do a lot of negative work toward creating an atmosphere in which fear of dogs becomes socially acceptable and legally sanctioned.

Finally, more recent research into evolutionary psychology posits that a fear of dogs might be based in genetics and distant history. Just as even the calmest and best-behaved dog may retain some traits from its distant wolf ancestors, humans too, may retain some atavistic unease about dogs from those wilder, pre-domestic times.

Symptoms of cynophobia

The signs of cynophobia are much more easily defined, since they are held in common with most other phobias. People who are afraid of dogs may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Desire to run away
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Faintness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Panic
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

How to overcome dog phobia: treatment methods and approaches

The most common treatment methods involve training sufferers to reframe their experiences around dogs and their thought processes about them. Effective solutions combine many of these approaches. Desensitization teaches cynophobics to manage their anxieties as they arise. This is done through breathing exercises and cognitive retraining. Controlled exposure to dogs puts people who are fearful of dogs in situations where they can learn to experience them positively.

Coming at the problem of dog phobia from a variety of angles, including positive and supportive networks of family and friends, has proven useful, if not in eliminating the fear altogether, at least in making it less paralyzing. Some people who have suffered and recovered from extreme cynophobia may even end up adopting dogs themselves, replacing fear with love. Best-case scenarios, of course, are not always the result, even of the most assiduous counseling.

There are other, less frequently cited approaches to overcoming a fear of dogs. Some people, like “Tulip,” use artistic expression and creativity to freely express what social pressures might otherwise force them to conceal from others. Even an exercise like learning to draw a dog might give someone experiencing fear of dogs some measure of control over the object of that fear.

Cynophobia is not a weakness

A dog need not be large or even marginally aggressive to inspire fear in people who suffer from cynophobia, nor does actual suffering need to be a part of their lives. Regardless of the size or temperament of an individual dog, it’s always best to ask potential houseguests whether they’re okay around dogs, and to keep dogs on-leash in public areas to avoid unnecessary incidents. Cynophobia is is not a weakness; nor is it unreasonable to respect people’s boundaries when they make them plain.

As Clara Oswald once told a terrified child in the Doctor Who story, “Listen” (2014), “Being afraid is all right… fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger.” Phobias are best understood in all their complexity by the people who experience them, and are often borne out of very real and traumatic circumstances. For people who are afraid of dogs, knowing your own boundaries is neither weak nor irrational. In an ideal world, and under the best circumstances, as Clara said, “Fear makes companions of us all.”

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