Psychology

Living a dog's life!

Most of us will nod along to the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, but millions of people, especially children experience cynophobia, which is the posh name for a fear of dogs. This phobia can be debilitating, limiting social activities and casting a shadow over daily routines. Christopher Paul Jones, author of Face your Fears, has some practical solutions.

Published

Christopher explains: ‘A fear of dogs may be a primal fear of predators such as wolves. Or it may be the result of witnessing other people’s fear of dogs, and this is often seen in young children. If as a parent, or carer you are anxious around dogs, then your child is more likely to develop a phobia. So, if dogs make you nervous, try not to show it when your child is watching.

A common cause of cynophobia is a past negative experience with dogs; traumatic encounters such as being bitten, chased, or threatened by a dog can embed a sense of fear that persists into adulthood. This lasting anxiety is sometimes known as the Pavlovian response, a process in which the brain forms a strong association between the stimulus (dogs) and the traumatic response (fear) ­ even in situations where dogs pose no real threat. Once you understand this connection, it helps you to understand that cynophobia is not an irrational fear, but a learned response to genuine past dangers.

‘The intensity of fear can range from mild discomfort around dogs to debilitating panic attacks. Some children might only experience fear in specific situations, like encountering unleashed dogs or being in crowded dog parks. Others might experience anxiety around any dog, regardless of size, breed, or behaviour. Fear can strain relationships with dog-owning friends, prevent visits to dog-owning relatives, and hinder social activities like walks in the park. Anxiety about encountering dogs in public places can limit travel options and restrict daily routines. The fear can cast a shadow over daily activities, creating a sense of unease. It’s not something to be mocked or dismissed.’

Here are five tips to help you help your child:


1. Identify the root cause of your child’s fear

Understanding the roots of any phobia is crucial. Talk to your child about their unease around dogs and explore specifics. Are they afraid of physical harm, do they fear a loss of control, or is the root of what they are feeling to do with a past traumatic event?

2. Is there a reward for fear?

Try to work out if the fear your child feels helps to keep them safe from situations they see as dangerous. Ask yourself if they seem to enjoy the attention they receive because of this fear? Would they lose anything if the fear were to disappear?

Phobias can serve hidden ‘gains’ that may not seem logical: things like avoiding situations we find uncomfortable about, attracting attention and care from others, or feeling that fear protects us or keeps us safe. Understanding these gains can make it easier to let go of fear.

3. Try to relax

Calm is the key to accessing emotions, and then letting them go. When children are relaxed, that are able to deal with fears more effectively. Teach your child the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique which involves inhaling quietly through the nose for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling forcefully through the mouth, pursed around the tongue, for eight seconds. This breathing pattern, repeated three to four times, acts as a natural tranquiliser for the nervous system. It's particularly effective in reducing anxiety because it increases the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, slows the heart rate and stabilises blood pressure.

4. Script Flipping

Part of your child’s fear of dogs will be what ifs: for example, what if the dog jumps on them? You can tackle what ifs by Script Flipping. Write down as many what ifs as your child can think of, then help them replace each what if with a positive statement or question. For example, what if the dog calmly sits by their side?

Encourage your child take the new statements and questions and visualise them, adding affirmations that introduce a new narrative – such as ‘I can be calm and happy and in control around dogs.’

5. Visual and auditory changes

Ask your child to imagine a dog that triggers their phobia and then, in their mind’s eye, start to shrink that image, making it lose its colour until it’s black and white, and then letting it play backward like a film reel running in reverse. This process helps to diminish the emotional impact the image has on them. The absurdity of a dog walking backward in a silent movie fashion creates a distance between them and the fear.

If the bark of a dog is a trigger, ask your child to imagine that sound becoming high-pitched, like a cartoon character. You could even overlay it with a ridiculous sound effect. Incorporating humorous or nonsensical auditory elements can help to break down a sense of fear. It’s like the Ridiculous Spell in Harry Potter: by actively changing how we visualise and hear our fears, we engage different neural pathways, reducing the original stimulus's emotional and physiological impact. And laughter and humour have been shown to reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christopher Paul Jones is a leading Harley Street phobia expert who has overcome his own fears following 20 years of research which has taken him across Europe, North America and Asia. Christopher’s clients come from all over the world and include Hollywood actors and Oscar nominees, models, musicians, presenters and celebrities. His book, Face Your Fears, is available on Amazon.

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