In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment for Cynophobia.
What is Cynophobia?
Cynophobia is a fear of dogs in which people can get very anxious, when around them. Specific phobias related to animals are very common amongst people, for example fear of cats, bees, sharks etc. Cynophobia is a fear of dogs in which people can get very anxious, when around them. This fear might not be completely irrational because dogs can be dangerous at times. But in Cynophobia the fear intensifies and the person suffering from it feels extremely nervous and uneasy when they see dogs.
This nervousness or unpleasant feeling can lead to full blown panic attacks or other physiological symptoms like an increase in breathing/heart rate, nausea etc. These symptoms can interfere with a person’s normal, daily routine because they will always find ways to avoid any encounter with dogs.
For example, someone with this specific phobia might not be able to leave his/her house without being accompanied by someone else because the building they live in has a dog on leash at the gate. On the other hand, some people might find it difficult to visit a family member or friend or even go to work because of the fear of coming across a dog, either on their way to their destination or at the destination.
This phobia is diagnosed in the same way as every other specific phobia or mental disorder, by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This specific phobia comes under the category of ‘animal’ specific phobia.
To be diagnosed with this fear of dogs, one must have extreme anxiety for at least 6-months or more, accompanied by other physical symptoms.
Cynophobia is an irrational fear of dogs. The Greek word ‘cyon’ refers to dog and ‘phobos’ means fear, therefore it is the fear of dogs. It is categorized as an animal specific phobia.
As with all the other specific phobias, anxiety is the main symptom of Cynophobia. This irrational fear is the driving force, which encourages sufferers to avoid dogs. This avoidance can be stressful as they will put in all their efforts to escape a fearful situation. As mentioned earlier, this is what affects their social relations and occupations.
When one avoids the stimulus of their fear (dogs in this case), it gives them a feeling of satisfaction and security from danger. This adds to their fear because avoidance makes them believe that dogs are dangerous and to be feared of. Also, in a situation where dogs are impossible to be avoided, for example in parks, the sufferer will get extremely anxious and might have panic attacks if the fear intensifies.
For people with Cynophobia, not just the presence of dogs but the very thought about them can instigate physical symptoms. These negative thoughts are very difficult to be avoided and thus, the sufferer stays in a state of anxiousness.
Including anxiety, Cynophobia also causes a number of other symptoms in the sufferer. They are as follows:
Extreme anxiety in the presence of dogs
Extreme anxiety when hearing the barking of a dog or just the thought of it.
Repeated actions done to avoid dogs
Full-blown panic attacks
Increased heart rate
Inability to breathe properly/ an increase in the breathing rate
Increase in muscle tension/palpitations
Feeling of dizziness
Hot/cold flashes when in a flight, fight or freeze mode. (A hot flash refers to the temporary heating up of the body when in a state of fear. And a cold flash means when the body suddenly starts to shiver or cool down, when encountered by a fear stimulus).
Butterflies in the stomach
For a person to be diagnosed with Cynophobia, one needs to have at least 3-5 symptoms out of all these. Anxiety should always be present for the diagnosis.
Cynophobia, like all other specific phobias has no known cause. These types of phobias can be a result of a number of factors such as biological (genetics) and or environmental (past experiences or social learning).
Genetics refers to the genes and neurotransmitters in our body. When there is a chemical imbalance in the brain or a deformation in the structure of a gene, this can cause one to have a mental disorder of any kind (Cynophobia for example). Other than this, family history also plays a role in the causation of Cynophobia (or any other type of specific phobia).
Someone with a family history of a phobia/mental disorder has a higher chance of having the same or different disorder in the future. This is because the genes of the parents are transferred to their children, thus any alteration in the genes of one’s parents are transmitted into their child. Someone whose parent(s) have Cynophobia is more likely to have it, as compared to a person who doesn’t have a family history of any disorder.
Other than just genetics, the environment also plays a very crucial role in the development of a specific phobia. One’s personal experiences can be of high importance when it comes to developing Cynophobia (or any other type of specific phobia).
An incident where someone had an unpleasant encounter with a dog is very likely to be one of the causes for Cynophobia. A sufferer might be suffering this irrational fear of dogs because, for example he was bitten or attacked by a dog in the past (most likely, when a child). Therefore, they just need a trigger event to instigate their fear. For example, whenever the child or the person sees a dog in a picture, in real life or on TV, he/she will have extreme anxiety just because of the bad memories they have with the animal.
Another example can be if the person did not have any bad experience with the dog but have heard or seen someone getting attacked or bitten by it. Even though they did not themselves experience that fear or pain, but just by the word of mouth or the visuals on TV, can develop Cynophobia. This is so, because they will always anticipate the same happening to them if they have a dog encounter or they will associate dogs with aggression or harm.
One other factor that might be a reason for someone to have Cynophobia can be imitation or conditioning. Maybe their parents were afraid of dogs and watching their fears and acts of avoidance, the child either imitates them or learns to avoid dogs.
Though dogs can be very aggressive and harmful at times, the sufferers of Cynophobia irrationally justify their fear. The examples mentioned above prove that people with this fear of dogs don’t just require a personal, bad experience with dogs, but just the perceptions they hold of them can cause Cynophobia.
And it is important to note that not all dogs are harmful or aggressive.
Like all the other specific phobias, Cynophobia is treated by a number of different therapies including Exposure Therapy, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lower down the anxiety or other physical symptoms.
• Exposure Therapy
It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Cynophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia). In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his/her fear over a certain span of time. To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture or a video for example, of a dog.
As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery or Active-imaginal Exposure (AIE) can be used to take the treatment a step further. In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he comes across a dog. During the process of imagery, one actually feels being in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.
Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious clears this step of the therapy, he/she is then exposed to a real dog (for example, in a park).
While the patient is being exposed to different intensities of stimuli during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises. These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear/anxiety causing situation. This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to the fear stimuli.
Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.
However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of dogs, by being exposed to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.
Cynophobia is defined as the irrational fear of dogs. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones. The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about being exposed to a dog. The therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.
The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation. The ABCD stands for:
i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.
ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation
iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought
iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.
This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.
• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions. Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions, lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.
In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, to focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process. This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.
Pursed lip breathing can also be exercised by the patient. In this technique the person inhales from the nose, purses his/her lips (like one does when blowing a candle) and then exhales through the pursed lips, so that the duration for the air to be expelled from the body takes time. When exhaling takes longer than inhaling, this soothes the brain and avoids feelings of anxiety.
For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes’ yoga and meditation 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15minutes a day.
• Drug Therapy
Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Cynophobia. Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken. This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic.
However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation. Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:
i. Anti-anxiety Drugs
They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers the anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.
ii. Antidepressant Drugs
These drugs as the name suggest don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias. Medicines like Zoloft reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm. They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.
Whether the cause of Cynophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Titles to read
- CYNOPHOBIA: Practical Hacks on How to Overcome the Fear of Dogs by Corrie Burns
- Overcoming Your Child’s Fear of Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Stefani M. Cohen, LCSW and Cathy Malkin, MA
- Hypnosis for life: Fear of Dogs by Neil Trigger
- Anxiety and Stress Disorders: A guide to managing panic attacks, phobias, PTSD, OCD, social anxiety disorder, and related conditions by Theodore Murray, MD, et al
- Overcoming Animal and Insect Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Dogs, Snakes, Rodents, Bees, Spiders, and Morem by Martin M. Antony and Randi E. McCabe
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) Are all dogs harmful?
No. Though dogs can be very aggressive and violent at times, that is not the case with every dog that exists nor the ones who are aggressive always stay in that mood.
There are a number of different breeds of dogs, many are as small as puppies and non-harmful. Dogs don’t just attack every other person they see. For them to attack or be violent, there needs to be a trigger to instigate them.
Q2) How common is Cynophobia?
Around 7-9% of the population has Cynophobia. It is a common phobia which is recognized as an ‘animal’ specific phobia in the DSM-5.
Q3) Is Cynophobia genetic?
Cynophobia can be either genetic or environmental. If someone has a genetic predisposition or a family history for this phobia or other mental disorders, then he/she is more likely to have it. Other than just the genes, Cynophobia can be caused by past traumatic events too.
Q4) Do I have Cynophobia?
For someone to be diagnosed with Cynophobia, one needs to meet the DSM-5 criteria symptoms for specific phobias. Such as, extreme anxiety, panic attacks (if the anxiety intensifies) and or physiological symptoms (for example, rapid heartbeat or dizziness).
Q5) How do you overcome Cynophobia?
There are a number of effective treatments for Cynophobia. It is a treatable phobia, like all other specific phobias. Cognitive treatment such as CBT or Exposure Therapy can be given to a person. Medicines like anti-anxiety can also be prescribed by the doctor, if the phobia gets severe.