Cynophobia is the fear of dogs. As far as phobias go, it is a relatively common, although the fear of snakes or spiders is seen more often in therapy. The reason I decided to write an article about dog phobia is because many people suffer from it.
One of the things I often see is that the person suffering from cynophobia would actually like to own a dog. That may seem odd, but if you think about what great companions dogs are, it’s not that surprising. I have heard a number of cynophobes say they sought therapy because they saw how much friends and family enjoy having a dog as part of the family.
For years, therapists and psychologists have hypothesized the cause of cynophobia as well as the best methods of treatment. First of all, not everyone who is afraid of dogs is cynophobic. Cynophobia is not apprehension over a particular type of dogs, such as large dogs. It is more of a severe fear that leads to panic attacks. The following symptoms are typical of a person experiencing cynophobia.
Excessive and Unreasonable Fear
A person with cynophobia has an excessive and unreasonable fear of dogs. For example, a dog doesn’t even have to be present for the person to experience panic. Just the thought or anticipation of the presence of a dog can trigger excessive fear. The person will probably avoid going to a place where dogs could be present. Also, friendly well-behaved dog s can elicit a fear response.
Exposure to Dogs Triggers Intense Anxiety
Virtually every time a dog is present, the cynophobic will experience an immediate anxiety response. Often, this anxiety response comes in the form of a panic attack. Below are the most common panic attack symptoms:
- Racing heart.
- Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy.
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers.
- Chest pains.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Sense of terror, or impending doom or death.
- Feeling sweaty or having chills.
- Feeling a loss of control.
- Recognition That Fear is Excessive
Adults with cynophobia tend to recognize that their fear of dogs is unrealistic and excessive, though this recognition does not keep them from experiencing it. In children and adolescents, this recognition is less likely.
Avoidance of Dogs
As mentioned, people with cynophobia avoid dogs whenever possible and go out of their way to do so. Often, they will perceive the presence of a dog before anyone else does. The excessive need to avoid dogs sometimes interferes with the person’s daily functioning and is a source of embarrassment. For example, a person with whom they are dating may not believe how bad the fear actually is.
What Causes Cynophobia?
Research points to three main possibilities exist as to why a person may be afraid of dogs. As with most specific phobias, cynophobia usually develops during childhood between the ages of 8 and 13. The child may have had a personal encounter with a dog that ended in being bitten, chased, or otherwise threatened. Alternatively, they may have witnessed another person having a similar negative experience with a dog.
Research has suggested that if the person who was harmed by a dog is a close friend or family member, the experience is likely to trigger a phobia towards dogs in the future. Studies have also found that cynophobes learn their behavior indirectly, usually from a cynophobic parent or from the media.
People who spend time around dogs as a child are less likely to develop a phobia. There are exceptions, and some people fear dogs without having had any of the above experiences. Evolutionary psychologists believe that a fear of dogs evolved in humans as a survival mechanism as humans learned to fear and to avoid predators. Evolutionary psychology holds that cynophobia is a combination of genetic and experiential factors.
Treatment for Cynophobia
The most common treatments for overcoming cynophobia occur in psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy often used in treating cynophobia. CBT uses several different treatment methods, including exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation training.
Exposure therapy involves spending time in the presence of the object of the fear, such as dogs in the case of cynophobia. The point of this approach is used to retrain the brain, demonstrating that dogs are harmless and do not merit an intense fear reaction. With repeated exposures, the brain gradually becomes accustomed to relaxing in the presence of dogs. Another newer type of exposure therapy is auditory-visual virtual reality.
Cognitive restructuring works by uncovering what negative underlying beliefs and thought patterns are influencing and aggravating the fear of dogs. Once these fears have been identified, either in session with a therapist or by journaling, the focus of therapy is to change these beliefs and thought patterns, replacing them with more positive and productive ones.
Relaxation training is any method, process, procedure, or activity that helps a person to relax and to attain a state of increased calmness. It can help by teaching how to control fear by way of using methods such as meditation, visualization exercises and controlled breathing routines.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. EMDR is another phobia protocol with which good results have been achieved. EMDR is a treatment for distressing memories and related pathologies that can be effective in treating anxiety disorders which follow a traumatic experience (e.g., dog phobia after a dog bite), and less effective for those of unknown onset.
Recovery and Maintenance
Whatever type of therapy is used, several factors dictate how many sessions will be required to completely remove the phobia. Studies have suggested that those who overcome their phobia are typically able to maintain the improvement over the long-term. Because avoidance contributes to the perpetuation of the phobia, constant and safe real world interaction is critical during and after therapy to reinforce positive exposure.
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.
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