By Rain Jordan
For Seaside Signal
If you’re a dog lover, it may be hard to imagine that some people despise dogs. Who could hate a dog? Just as what many people may perceive as “aggression” in dogs is often nothing more than fear and self-protection, fear of dogs — cynophobia — often appears, to us dog lovers, as hatred of our beloved canine companions. (This is not to excuse those who act out of malice — something quite different.)
After the fear of snakes and spiders, cynophobia is the most common animal phobia. Cynophobia usually begins in childhood and may be experiential, observational, or learned. A cynophobic person may, for example, have in the past been bitten or chased (experiential), have witnessed someone else being attacked (observational), or her/his fear may have been shaped (taught) by others in her/his life, who passed down their own fears, or told ugly stories, about mean dogs; fears or imaginations may be activated by parents or other family members, television, or even children’s books like Little Red Riding Hood. It may be argued that learned cynophobia is perpetuated by misconceptions and myths about breeds and colors, e.g., “black dog syndrome.” For those suffering from cynophobia who do not fall into any of these causal categories, evolutionary psychologists offer another theory, that fear and avoidance of dogs is a holdover from our distant history when humans were prey, and thus the irrational fear may be rooted in genetics and ancestral experience.
Those who spend a lot of time with dogs and do not avoid them are less likely to develop the phobia. But that does not help those who already have it. It is unfortunate that only 12 to 30 percent of those suffering from the illness seek treatment — especially given that, as therapists working in this field have said, and as all dog owners know, most dogs are all bark and no bite. There are nearly 90 million dogs in the United States. That’s a lot of needless, treatable anxiety for cynophobics.
Ironically, those who love and live with dogs will confirm that, among other things, they help keep stress and anxiety levels at bay. Many dog owners will also say that dogs keep them active, playful, joyful, calm, positive, attentive, careful, humble, and kind. I think this is often true, though it doesn’t mean we’re perfect. I’m one example, in that I’m not immune to taking offense, even though dogs have definitely made me a better person. I’m not immune, especially when it comes to the welfare of dogs — who are innocent, at the whim and mercy of their humans, and of other humans. My husband attended a meeting recently where people were angry and venting. Dogs were not the problem at hand but became a scapegoat for their owner, the true topic of contention. The dogs had hurt no one and really, had done nothing wrong; it was the owner who had misbehaved, which resulted in his dogs doing what dogs do naturally. Suddenly there was a call to limit everyone’s rights to have dogs in their homes, then someone declared that in Alaska you can shoot a dog, no questions asked for the natural behavior aforementioned. Another person was upset that the dogs growled at him, from their own property.
Many people bring home dogs to protect them and their property — there was a time not so long ago when that was the standard, accepted reason, so I’m not sure why a growl when a stranger, especially an angry stranger, approaches a dog’s property is such a shock. But as a canine behavior professional, what I do know is that growling is normal and a respected form of communication. Growling says, “Hey, I tried to tell you nicely before, but you ignored me. You are making me uncomfortable. Please stop it.”
If a dog is growling at you, here’s advice that would normally cost around $100 an hour: First ask yourself What am I doing to scare the dog? Second, stop doing it immediately. Third, do not do it again. Fourth, don’t blame a dog for being a dog, or for communicating in the peaceful one of at least two peaceful language modes a dog has.
Guardians of dogs have come to expect kindness for them. I think most would expect a person upset by a dog to act humanely and take it up with the dog’s humans rather than take it out on the dog. To do otherwise would be rather like a stranger threatening children for whispering about him in their yard as he walked by it.
If you are struggling with cynophobia, those who care for dogs would surely return your kindness by offering empathy and support; I’m sure many would be happy to help you get accustomed to a dog if you wished — desensitization being part of learning to navigate a world full of dogs, just as many dogs who are afraid of humans must learn to be comfortable with humans. For those who’ve been caught up in something unpleasant, in which a dog happened to be a bystander, consider giving a responsible dog owner a chance to show you what dogs — not irresponsible owners — are really about. There is much to love and learn in the wonderful world of woofers. (And by the way, they actually can be trained to not bark!)
Rain Jordan of Elevate Dog Training & Behavior is a certified, professional dog trainer. Contact her at ElevateDogTraining@gmail.com.