Fur and disgust: what to do when you are afraid of dogs


If dogs make you anxious, you’re not alone. A few canine experts tell Sam Brooks how people who don’t like dogs can get their fears under control and what owners can do to help them too.

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In a world where people can be afraid of everything from the number 13 to butterflies to the color yellow, the fear of dogs is one of the most common. About a third of people who seek treatment for a specific phobia seek this treatment because of their fear of dogs. This, perhaps, is not surprising. Dogs are pets – most people are much more likely to encounter them on a daily basis than they are, say, a horse or a snake. But dogs also have specific characteristics that scare many of us, like unpredictability, a love of jumping, and very sharp teeth.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m anxious around other people’s dogs. I barely trust people I don’t know, so I’m even less likely to trust a dog I don’t know – especially when I have no idea how well-trained, well-behaved or even how cold it is. For other people, these anxieties can degenerate into a full-fledged phobia.

Cynophobia (cyno means “dog” in Greek) can be the result of many things, including previous trauma or a lack of familiarity with dogs. People with pre-existing anxiety disorders are also prone to cynophobia. I spoke to canine behavior expert Isla Treadwell and SPCA chief scientist Dr. Alison Vaughn about these anxieties, what sufferers can do to alleviate them – and ideally resolve them – and how dog owners can help too.

Mercury, a very good boy (Photo: Isla Treadwell)

ignore the dog

The best thing to do when faced with a scary dog? Give him the cold shoulder.

“Ignore him as much as you can,” says Treadwell. “Eye contact can be perceived either as an invitation or as a confrontation. Ignore it without obviously avoiding it.

Vaughn recommends taking steps to make yourself less interesting or threatening to the animal. “You need to turn to the side, cross your arms and stay still while avoiding eye contact.”

Communicate with the owner

In the end, it could come down to talking to the person responsible for the dog. “Tell the owner that you’re not comfortable with their dog, and put them on a leash or take them out of the room,” Treadwell explains. “It’s probably hard for an anxious person to defend themselves and their own space, but it’s also the fairest thing for the dog to do. Both you and the dog are probably not comfortable.

Be aware of your own energy

The popular adage that the animal is more afraid of you than you are is not necessarily true for dogs, who are particularly sensitive to the energy around them. “Their reaction will be a reflection of your energy,” says Treadwell. OWhen a dog is frightened, their reaction is usually to become defensive – they may respond with a growl or a nip. “If they sense that someone is not confident, they will either be scared or they will target their weakness, which perpetuates the problem.”

Mercury, a very good boy (Photo: Isla Treadwell)

If you are not comfortable with the dog, do not approach the dog

If you can’t project a confident energy, the best thing to do is stay away from the dog. A poorly trained dog can learn that behavior triggered by insecure or anxious people, such as growling or nipping, causes people to stay out of their space, and this prompts them to do so more.

This is where a landlord can step in. “The main thing is to defend your dog’s space and communicate with people only if they are unsure not to approach the dog. If you know you’re dealing with someone who isn’t comfortable around dogs, don’t force the connection.

If owners don’t understand what’s going on with the dog’s psychology, they will perpetuate problems not only for anxious people, but also for the dog itself. “We have to remember that we bring a wild animal into our lives and expect it to behave in a way that meets our expectations of it without communicating to it what our expectations are,” says Treadwell.

“It’s like bringing a giraffe to your house and expecting it to come through the door.”

Understanding dog psychology

“Like people, anxious animals behave in different ways,” says Vaughn. “Some fearful or anxious animals may try to run away, cower, or hide in stressful situations. Other animals may try to scare away the threatening thing or person by barking or rushing.

Once owners understand their dog, they can understand the impact he has on others and how the world impacts him. “You have to make concessions in your own life,” says Treadwell. “Whether it’s understanding the psychology of the dog or understanding that you can’t have your dog with everyone and have that idealized companion that can go anywhere with you unless you help him be able to do it.”

While dog breeds tend to share certain behavioral traits, breeding has little to do with a particular dog’s temperament. Treadwell uses Rottweilers as an example – they tend to be insecure, which is a big part of why they tend to be perceived as aggressive. But this aggression is due to the fact that a specific dog was not advocated, did not have confidence or did not have the right structure. “So either they’re barking and growling at you because they’re scared and you’re coming at them with unbalanced energy, or they’re barking because they think they’ve had to take on the role of being a leader without tell him how to lead.

Also, some things people do when trying to be friendly with dogs can actually be perceived as threatening, such as direct eye contact, leaning into the animal, or pushing a hand in the dog’s face. animal.

“You wouldn’t run to hug a human stranger,” Vaughn says. “We encourage people to take an equally respectful approach when seeing animals in public spaces.”

Mercury, a very good boy (Photo: Isla Treadwell)

Size doesn’t matter

While large dogs are generally more physically intimidating, pint-sized dogs can often be just as anxiety-provoking. It’s often because of the way small dogs are treated by their owners, Treadwell says.

“Dogs are reflections of you, basically, in how you keep your dog’s boundaries or how you treat the dog,” he says. “You have to keep in mind that when you give affection or attention to a dog, you are reinforcing the state of mind and behavior that he is showing at that moment, because dogs live in that time.”

Pampering your dog with baby talk, treats, or a lack of boundaries (like leaving him on the couch or bed) can end up giving mixed messages. That’s how you can end up with “a little yelping dog barking or a terrified shaking dog,” says Treadwell. “With a small dog, if he has an anxious temper and you reinforce everything, he will continue to be terrified because that’s what’s being reinforced.”

Doing what a lot of people, myself included, would do – level up with him and coo “cute dog” – might actually end up reinforcing behavior that causes not just anxiety for the dog, but for the people who meet him. in the future. “You walk into this terrified animal’s space with high-pitched noises, probably a lot of movement, and he has no idea what’s going on, and he’s going to try to defend himself.” Here’s a good chance to remember rule number one on this list: When in doubt, ignore the dog.

Start out old and slow

If you’re determined to be around dogs or slowly face your fears and anxieties, Treadwell recommends starting with an older, slower-moving dog. Like many seniors, they generally don’t give a fuck anymore. As Treadwell says, “Chances are they probably don’t care so much about being in the room and they’re sleeping.”

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