An extreme fear of dogs is known as cynophobia (pronounced sigh-no-phobia). The name is derived from the Greek words for dog (“cyno”) and fear (“phobos”).
A phobia is an extreme and overwhelming fear of something, often irrational and excessive relative to the real level of danger. Having a phobia can result in severe anxiety symptoms. People with phobias may change their daily activities to ensure that they avoid coming into contact with the things that they fear.
Phobias are anxiety disorders. They are uncontrollable and persistent psychological conditions which can have a significant impact on quality of life. While their development is not fully understood, research has shown that both genetic and environmental factors can contribute. This means that some people will be more likely to develop phobias than others due to a genetic predisposition and that the experiences of an individual during their life may also play a part.
People with cynophobia usually understand that their fear of dogs is not rational or proportionate but can’t overcome it. Their anxiety response is automatic, immediate and not within their own control.
Symptoms of cynophobia
Cynophobia can result in significant emotional and physical responses. Symptoms are often immediately triggered when a dog is encountered. In severe cases, symptoms can even be brought on by merely thinking about dogs without any interaction with a dog in real life. These responses are automatic and include:
- Dizziness, light-headedness
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea, diarrhoea
- Trembling or shaking
- Crying, screaming, hysteria
- Difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, sensations of choking
- Feelings of dread and fear of dying
- Feelings of loss of control and panic
- Strong desire to flee and escape from the situation
In addition to these anxiety symptoms, Cynophobia can lead to avoidance behaviour, where a person deliberately changes their behaviour to avoid coming into contact with dogs.1
The response is usually out of proportion to the real threat posed, with the perception of danger being significantly exaggerated. It is different from an appropriate fear response, which may be experienced when encountering an unfamiliar animal that genuinely poses a risk. It is also different from childhood fears, which are usually less severe and temporary. These fears are a normal part of a child’s development and are usually grown out of.
Diagnosis of cynophobia
Most phobias are not diagnosed professionally. However, if help is sought from healthcare professionals, they may formally diagnose cynophobia following consideration of an individual’s emotional, behavioural and physical responses to exposure to dogs. This may involve history taking, questionnaire completion and the use of virtual reality2 (VR – a 3D technological simulation of a real-life situation that provides both auditory and visual inputs).
Management and treatment of cynophobia
People with phobias may not experience many symptoms or disruption to their lives if they are not often exposed to the things that they fear.
Dogs, however, are frequently encountered in daily life. Cynophobia can, therefore, cause significant distress and can lead people to make changes to their daily lives to ensure that they avoid them. This can have a significant impact on school, work and social interactions. In severe cases, this can lead to isolation and the development of other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Cynophobia, therefore, has the potential to significantly impact the quality of life.
Phobias such as cynophobia can often be treated successfully. Common treatment modalities include the following,
Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness, can be used to help control anxiety symptoms. Such techniques may prevent individuals from becoming overwhelmed, reduce sensations of panic and increase feelings of being in control.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment which can help to reframe distorted or irrational thought patterns. By challenging thoughts and behaviours associated with threats and danger, it may be possible to reduce the exaggerated fear response and prevent avoidance behaviour.
CBT is a talking therapy but can incorporate other elements. In the treatment of phobias such as cynophobia, CBT will commonly include exposure therapy, with the aim of desensitising the individual to the thing that they fear.
This component of therapy involves deliberately exposing an individual to the thing that they fear whilst challenging the negative thought processes associated with it. The aim is to bring about desensitisation, retraining the brain to understand that the extreme level of danger that it is perceiving is not real, and so reducing the exaggerated fear reaction. Evidence for its success in treating specific phobias such as cynophobia is strong, according to the Society of Clinical Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association.
This therapy may involve a gradual increase in exposure to the fear-inducing situation, working through a ‘fear hierarchy’ from the least fear-inducing situation to the greatest. With cynophobia, this may involve first looking at pictures of dogs or hearing dogs barking, moving on to being close to a dog on a lead, and eventually progressing to petting a dog.
The exposure to dogs can happen in real life, although this has practical constraints in a healthcare setting. An alternative is the use of virtual reality modalities to simulate an encounter with a dog. The 3D nature of this simulation, including auditory and visual inputs, can provide a similar experience in a more convenient format. Research has shown success with this mode of therapy in treating cynophobia.2
Other treatment options
Other possible phobia treatments include hypnotherapy3 and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).4 Hypnotherapy involves inducing a state of hypnosis, during which an individual may be more open to changing their perceptions and thought processes. EMDR involves re-processing previous traumatic experiences that may have led to the development of the phobia.
Medication is not commonly prescribed for specific phobias, such as dog phobia, but can be used to control symptoms of anxiety. Antidepressants, tranquilisers and beta-blockers may all be prescribed for this purpose.
Risk factors for cynophobia development
It is not fully understood why cynophobia develops, but research shows that certain factors may be relevant. These include:
- Gender: In general, phobias of a specific thing or situation are more common in people assigned female at birth (AFAB) than people assigned male at birth (AMAB).5
- Age: Animal phobias can develop at any age, but most start during early childhood and diminish with age.1, 5
- Co-existing mental health conditions: Research has shown that phobias of specific things or situations often exist alongside other mental health conditions, including:
- Family history: Individuals can have a genetic predisposition to developing psychological conditions such as phobias.6 Irrational fear responses can also be learned from others.7
- Learned experience: Phobias can develop following an unpleasant experience.8 This could be a direct encounter with a dog that resulted in fear or pain. Additionally, exaggerated fear responses can be learned from others or through informational learning, for example, hearing about a dog attack in the news.
Consequences of cynophobia
Many people live with and manage phobias of specific things or situations without seeking treatment. However, left untreated, severe phobias can result in significant disruption to daily life. Distressing symptoms and fear avoidance behaviour can reduce self-esteem, lead to isolation, and have a negative impact on professional, academic and social activities. Research has shown that specific phobias often co-exist with other mental health conditions.4
How common is cynophobia?
Simple phobias (irrational fears of a specific thing or situation) are a common mental health condition. Data from the World Health Organization Mental Health Initiative Survey gathered between 2001 and 2011 showed an average prevalence of 7.4% of people from 22 countries worldwide had a phobia of a specific thing or situation, of which fear of an animal was the most common.5 In the UK, NHS Inform (Scotland) estimates that 10 million people are estimated to have phobias. Exactly how frequently cynophobia itself occurs is not known.
When should I consult a healthcare professional?
If your cynophobia is significantly interfering with your day-to-day life and influencing your behaviour, consult a healthcare professional. Many cases of cynophobia can be successfully treated, and your doctor may be able to direct you to resources to help you with this.
Cynophobia is an extreme fear of dogs which can result in an exaggerated and uncontrollable fear response. Symptoms can be both physical and emotional, including trembling, rapid heart rate, sweating and nausea, along with panic attacks and a strong desire to flee the situation.
In severe cases, symptoms can even be brought on by thinking about dogs without actually encountering them. People with cynophobia may show significant avoidance behaviour, changing their lifestyle to ensure minimal contact with dogs. This can have a debilitating effect on quality of life and can result in low self-esteem. People with phobias of this kind often have other co-existing mental health conditions.
Treatment for cynophobia usually involves gradual exposure to dogs in order to desensitise the fear response.
- Hoffmann WA, Human LH. Experiences, characteristics and treatment of women suffering from dog phobia. Anthrozoös [Internet]. 2003 Mar [cited 2023 Aug 22];16(1):28–42. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233692227_Experiences_characteristics_and_treatment_of_women_suffering_from_dog_phobia
- Munir A, Saleem DrY. Diagnosis of phobic anxiety disorders using virtual reality environment [Internet]. 2022 Feb [cited 2023 Aug 22]. Available from: https://www.techrxiv.org/articles/preprint/Diagnosis_of_Phobic_Anxiety_Disorders_using_Virtual_Reality_Environment/19153769/1
- ABPP RAC PsyD. The clinical use of hypnosis in cognitive behaviour therapy: a practitioner’s casebook. Springer Publishing Company; 2005. 369 p. Available from: https://books.google.fr/books?hl=en&lr=&id=u6UpFP2fIqcC&oi=fnd&pg=PA101&dq=hypnotherapy+phobia&ots=ggAIoTRvhf&sig=YhC4q1jf33jYi0XXrX9IvLdy7nE&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=hypnotherapy%20phobia&f=false
- Jongh AD. Emdr therapy for specific fears and phobias: the phobia protocol. In: Luber M, editor. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR Therapy Scripted Protocols and Summary Sheets [Internet]. 1st ed. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 2015 [cited 2023 Aug 23]. Available from: https://psycho-trauma.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/EMDR-Therapy-for-specific-fears-and-phobias-The-phobia-protocol-De-Jongh2c-2015.pdf
- Wardenaar KJ, Lim CCW, Al-Hamzawi AO, Alonso J, Andrade LH, Benjet C, et al. The cross-national epidemiology of specific phobia in the World Mental Health Surveys. Psychol Med [Internet]. 2017 Jul [cited 2023 Aug 22];47(10):1744–60. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5674525/
- Villafuerte S, Burmeister M. Untangling genetic networks of panic, phobia, fear and anxiety. Genome Biol [Internet]. 2003 [cited 2023 Aug 23];4(8):224. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC193636/
- Askew C, Field AP. The vicarious learning pathway to fear 40 years on. Clinical Psychology Review [Internet]. 2008 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Aug 23];28(7):1249–65. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5236983_The_vicarious_learning_pathway_to_fear_40_years_on
- Garcia R. Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. Learn Mem [Internet]. 2017 Sep [cited 2023 Aug 23];24(9):462–71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580526/