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What is cynophobia?

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Cynophobia: How to overcome a fear of dogs

By Emilie Heyl Content Writer

Updated on the

Labradors, German shepherds or miniature Poodles... Whatever the breed, dogs are the terror of cynophobes. In the presence of canines, they feel an uncontrollable fear. In this article, you will find all our explanations and practical advice in order to better understand the reasons for your fear and to find solutions for dealing with it on a daily basis.

Cynophobia is the intense and irrepressible fear of dogs. Animal phobia is a common thing that can be very disabling in everyday life, especially when it comes to pets. Indeed, it is very likely that you will come across one or more canines during a walk. 

Several studies published that between 7 and 9 percent of the population suffers from cynophobia. Vanessa Carral, a graduate in Psychology, specialising in clinical and educational psychology, assures in an exclusive interview with Wamiz that phobias towards animals are not an isolated problem in society and supports this data presented.

Vanessa Carral reveals all there is to know about the phobia about dogs (and cats), the causes of it and she also suggests various solutions to overcome this fear.

What is cynophobia?

Carral gives a precise definition of the word: ''Cynophobia is the fear of dogs and is classified as a specific phobia. Dog phobia is intense and persistent''.

The psychologist continues by underlining that the same phobia exists with cats: ''This is called ailurophobia''. She adds: ''People with this specific phobia feel anxious when they think of a cat, see a cat, see images of a cat, or hear a cat''.

Pulling on that thread, we asked Carral the following question: ''Do people with this problem hate dogs and cats?'' To which the psychologist answers bluntly: ''Hating dogs and cats is not the same as suffering from a phobia, and it is very important to differentiate between the two concepts, as in no case can we justify violent acts or hatred towards animals under the umbrella of suffering from a phobia''.

She adds: ''...Hatred is an emotion that involves wishing harm on people or animals as opposed to phobia which is, as we have said, a disorder in which we feel a fear of certain stimuli and which has a psycho-social basis''.

Can dogs smell fear?

Dogs can sense our fear. It is a popular belief that dogs are more aggressive when they sense that the person in front of them is afraid of them.

Dog owners have probably already noticed that their dogs are sponges and they absorb our emotions. This intuition has just been supported by research and since, many studies have shown that dogs can literally smell people's fear. This ability is based on our canine companions' amazing sense of smell. Dogs sense people's fear by using chemosignals and the most interesting thing is that they also become afraid. They are therefore able to pick up and feel this negative emotion in turn.

The researchers were interested in the body odours produced by humans under armpits, the so-called chemosignals. The dogs were placed in front of a happy person, a fearful person and a person who doesn’t have any emotion when seeing a dog. Then, the dogs were confronted with three types of situations:

  • Odours that were emitted by the dog’s owner
  • Odours that were emitted by a stranger
  • Odours that were emitted by an odour dispenser

The emotional state of the dogs was assessed by measuring their heart rate, an indicator of stress when it rises. The results show significantly lower values in the happy and neutral situations.However, in the fearful condition, the dogs showed more signs of stress, sought more comfort from their owners and had less social contact with strangers. The researchers therefore suggest the existence of interspecific emotional communication (between dogs and humans) mediated by chemosignals. Dogs and humans communicate very well using different senses.

What causes cynophobia?

Vanessa Carral points out that it is common to find that the development of specific phobias occurs during childhood. However, it is not ruled out that adults can also develop them.

While the exact aetiology of such phobias is not known, Carral speaks of three possible causes:

  1. Traumatic experiences: for example, someone may develop a fear of dogs after being attacked by one.
  2. Family tendencies: both genetics and environment can play a role in the development of zoophobias. If someone in the family has a phobia, it is likely that you will also develop it through vicarious learning.
  3. Changes in brain function: some people seem to develop specific phobias as a result of neurological disorders or physical trauma.

What are symptoms of cynophobia?

According to Carral, the symptoms of phobias have a lot to do with the activation of our organism's evolutionary responses in order to detect or anticipate danger. In the case of phobias, this activation does not respond to a real danger but to an anxiety experienced by the sufferer. 

The psychologist also points out that the phobic stimulus, which triggers the disproportionate fear response, will activate sympathetic vegetative activity, developing the symptoms presented below:

  • Perspiration
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling of constant danger
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Anxiety

Why are humans scared of dogs?

First of all, every cynophobic person has his or her own reason(s) for being afraid of dogs, it is not a generalisation that can be applied to all cynophobic people. Especially since the fear of dogs is presented as a phobia. And generally there are no rational factors, no real reasons when one develops a phobia towards an animal. This fear is usually uncontrollable and permanent towards a being, an object or an activity.

Even if the fear of dogs is in most cases because of a bad experience, for some people there are several reasons for this phobia:

Lack of knowledge about dogs: This can explain in a way the fear of dogs for some children but also for adults. Indeed, when one has never seen a dog or been around a dog, it is normal to be apprehensive about dogs. And this works for all animals. Some people may be more familiar with snakes (or other pets) than people who have never seen or touched one for example.

Bad memories: this is another reason for fear of dogs. Indeed, it is enough to have had a bad experience with a dog for it to remain engraved in the memory and to become a trauma. For example, a dog that barks at you when you are a child, a dog that does not control its strength... This can naturally make you afraid of dogs. Not all dogs have the same personality. And when you don't know dogs, you can develop a general phobia towards dogs.

Are there any treatments?

Systematic exposure treatment helps 90% of people with this type of disorder, according to Carral. But the expert makes one thing clear: ''it is necessary for the sufferer to be willing to overcome the phobia, as the path is a complex one''.

She adds: ''The gradual exposure to the phobic stimulus is a challenge for the person suffering from the phobia so it is very important that the therapist calibrates the techniques and adapts them to the individual's progress.''

At this point, another question arises: ''Can a person overcome the phobia alone or is it better to ask for help from a professional?

Carral is clear: ''From my point of view, breaking free from the chain of a phobia is difficult and must always be accompanied by a tailor-made therapeutic plan. The process involves advances and setbacks that, if not well managed by a professional, can favour the worsening of the phobia and the possible development of secondary mental and physical disorders''.

How to overcome cynophobia?

Carral points out that there are different ways of dealing with specific phobias: interoceptive exposure, anxiety control techniques, applied muscle tension… But one of the most effective is systematic desensitisation.

What does systematic desensitisation consist of?

Systematic desensitisation is a scientific technique of proven effectiveness that involves 4 steps:

  1. Training in deep muscle relaxation and emotional understanding and management through pleasurable activities.
  2. Establishing with the person the use of a scale that measures the subjective anxiety response in quantitative methods.
  3. Construction of hierarchies of situations and stimuli that provoke anxiety responses.
  4. Use of relaxation and self-control methods in the presence of anxiety-provoking stimuli, both imaginary and real.

Through systematic desensitisation we help to develop tools to confront the phobic stimulus by learning to control the anxiogenic response it generates'', says the psychologist. She adds: ''The repeated presentation of the stimulus makes it progressively lose its capacity to evoke anxiety and consequently physical, emotional or cognitive discomfort''.

However, Carral makes it clear that each case must be studied by a clinical psychologist who will carry out the treatment in order to adapt each of the techniques to the specific situation of the person.

''My recommendation is that you free yourself from the chain of suffering from a phobia, so if you feel strong enough to face it, look for a specialised professional with demonstrable experience who can offer you a programme for a correct understanding and management of the phobia, there is a full life beyond fear''.

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