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Pictured: Mercury, a very good boy who you do not need to be scared of. (Photo: Isla Treadwell, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Pictured: Mercury, a very good boy who you do not need to be scared of. (Photo: Isla Treadwell, Image Design: Archi Banal)

Pet WeekApril 2, 2022

Fur and loathing: What to do when you’re scared of dogs

Pictured: Mercury, a very good boy who you do not need to be scared of. (Photo: Isla Treadwell, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Pictured: Mercury, a very good boy who you do not need to be scared of. (Photo: Isla Treadwell, Image Design: Archi Banal)

If dogs make you anxious, you’re not alone. A couple of canine experts tell Sam Brooks how dog dislikers can keep a handle on their fears, and what owners can do to help too.

All week we are examining and celebrating our relationship with animals in Aotearoa. Click here for more Pet Week content.

In a world where people can have fears of seemingly everything, from the number 13 to butterflies to the colour yellow, a fear of dogs is one of the most prevalent. Around a third of the people who seek treatment for a specific phobia are seeking that treatment due to their fear of dogs. This, perhaps, isn’t surprising. Dogs are domestic animals – most people are much more likely to encounter them on an everyday basis than they are, say, a horse or a snake. But dogs also have some specific characteristics that make many of us scared, like unpredictability, a love of jumping and very sharp teeth. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I get 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 chill it is. For other people, these anxieties can escalate into full-blown phobia.

Cynophobia (cyno is Greek for “dog”) can be the result of many things, including a previous trauma or a lack of familiarity with dogs. People with pre-existing anxiety disorders are also prone to cynophobia. I spoke to dog behaviour expert Isla Treadwell and the SPCA’s scientific officer Dr Alison Vaughn about these anxieties, what sufferers can do to lessen – 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 you’re confronted by a scary dog? Give it the cold shoulder.

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

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

Communicate with the owner

Ultimately, it might come down to actually talking to the person responsible for the dog. “Tell the owner that you’re not comfortable with their dog, and to put it on a lead or take it out of the room,” says Treadwell. “That’s probably hard for a person with anxiety to do, to stand up for yourself and advocate for your own space, but it’s also the fairest thing to do for the dog as well. You and the dog probably both aren’t comfortable.”

Be aware of your own energy

The popular adage that the animal is more scared of you than you are of it is not necessarily true for dogs, who are especially sensitive to the energy around them. “Their reaction will be a reflection of your energy,” says Treadwell. When a dog is scared, generally their reaction is to become defensive – they might respond with a growl or a nip. “If they sense someone’s not confident, they’ll either be scared or they’ll target their weakness, so that perpetuates the problem.”

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

If you’re not confident with the dog, don’t go near the dog

If you’re unable to project a confident energy then the best thing to do is stay away from the dog. A poorly trained dog can learn that the behaviour that is triggered around unconfident or anxious people, like a growl or a nip, gets people to stay out of their space, and that reinforces them to do it more.

This is where an owner can step in. “The key thing is to advocate for your dog’s space and communicate with people that if they’re not confident to not come near the dog. If you know that you’re dealing with someone who’s not confident with dogs, don’t force connection.” 

If owners don’t understand what’s going on with the dog’s psychology, they’re going to perpetuate problems not just for people who are anxious, but the dog itself. “We have to remember that we’re bringing a wild animal into our lives and expecting them to behave in a way that aligns with our expectations of them without communicating to them what our expectations are,” says Treadwell. 

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

Understand the dog’s psychology

“Like people, animals who are anxious behave in different ways,” says Vaughn. “Some animals who are fearful or anxious 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 lunging.”

Once owners understand their dog, they can understand the impact that it has on other people, and what impact the world has on it. “You have to make allowances in your own life,” says Treadwell. “Whether it’s understanding the dog’s psychology or understanding that you’re not going to be able to have your dog around everyone and have this idealised companion that can come everywhere with you, unless you help it to be able to do that.”

While dog breeds tend to share certain behavioural traits, breeding tends to have little to do with a particular dog’s temperament. Treadwell uses rottweilers as an example – they have a propensity to be insecure, which is largely why they tend to be perceived as aggressive. But that aggression is because a specific dog hasn’t been advocated for, had its confidence built up, or had the right structure. “So they’re either barking and growling at you because they’re scared and you’re coming at them with an unbalanced energy, or they’re barking at you because they think they’ve had to step up into the role of being a leader without being told how to lead.”

Additionally, some things people do when they’re trying to be friendly to dogs can actually be perceived as threatening, like direct eye contact, bending over the animal or pushing their hand in the animal’s face. 

“You wouldn’t run up and hug a human stranger,” says Vaughn. “We encourage people to take a similarly respectful approach when you see 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-inducing. That’s often because of the way small dogs are treated by their owners, says Treadwell.

“Dogs are reflections of you, basically, in the way you keep your dog’s boundaries or the way you treat the dog,” he says. “You have to bear in mind that when you’re giving a dog affection or attention you’re reinforcing the mindset and the behaviour that it’s exhibiting in that exact moment – because dogs live in that moment.”

Coddling your dog with baby talk, treats or a lack of boundaries (for example, letting them onto the couch or bed) can end up giving mixed messages. That’s how you can find yourself with “a little yappy dog that’s demand barking or a terrified quaking dog,” says Treadwell. “With a smaller dog, if it’s got an anxious temperament and you’re reinforcing everything, it’ll just keep being terrified because that’s what’s being reinforced.” 

Doing the thing that many people, myself included, would do – getting down to face level with it and cooing “cute dog” – might actually end up reinforcing behaviour that doesn’t just cause anxiety for the dog, but for people who encounter it in the future. “You’re coming into this terrified animal’s space with high-pitched noises, probably lots of moving, and it has no idea what the fuck is going on, and it’s going to try and defend itself.” Here’s a good opportunity to remind yourself of rule one of this list – when in doubt, ignore the dog. 

Start old and slow

If you’re determined to be around dogs, or to slowly confront your fears and anxieties, Treadwell recommends starting with an older and slower dog. Like many senior citizens, they generally no longer give a fuck. As Treadwell puts it, “Chances are they probably don’t care that much about being in the room and will just be asleep.”

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