Help! I am scared of dogs

24th Nov, 2016


I’m afraid of dogs but would like to get one for my kids, who adore animals – how do I get over this?

Lelani Kruger – Johannesburg


Claire Atkinson M. A., Counselling Psychologist and Dog Behaviourist, answers…

Paws up for being prepared to face your fear!

Without knowing more, I can only offer some general advice. First of all, try to identify what causes the fear. Was there an incident in your past (such as a dog bite) that caused this? If so, you could be experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. If there is no identifiable cause, just a general feeling of not wanting anything to do with them, it could be a mild phobia, like what people express towards spiders or snakes, despite seldom, if ever, having had contact with them. Or perhaps you’re just not used to them?

Start by writing down everything you can remember about your experience – this helps clarify exactly what it is that you want to let go of. Then think about whether what you felt then serves you today. If it was a bad childhood experience, you might find that those feelings are no longer relevant now. Once we know what a fear is, why it occurs, we become sufficiently aware to decide how to let it go.

The next step is to begin the process of desensitisation. This means slowly ‘interacting’ with dogs while ensuring that you still feel safe. You could start by looking at pictures of dogs, noting what you like and what makes you feel uncomfortable (such as large dogs, or dogs who are physically close to people). Making notes as you go will help to define more clearly the nature of your fear. When you feel comfortable, move onto real dogs – you could go to a park with a friend and observe from a distance the behaviour of the dogs and their owners. Next, find a friend who has a well-behaved dog and ask if you could meet for a cup of coffee and perhaps interact with her dog.

It will be helpful if you understand how to meet a dog. Basically, you stand still with your arms loosely linked in front of you and avoid eye contact or talking. The dog will approach, and his greeting is to sniff you. If he appears friendly, you may feel able to pat him on his side at the shoulder. Move away quietly if you feel uncomfortable and don’t panic. A point to remember is that animals are sensitive to our fear; our sudden movements may startle them.

When you feel ready to adopt your new family member, let the shelter know that you have some residual fear so that they can help you meet and greet dogs which may suit you, possibly off-site. I’d suggest a senior dog rather than a puppy, as puppies require a lot of work, which can be challenging, while seniors are usually calmer and less prone to overwhelming behaviour. Once the fear is under control, you’ll come to enjoy being with dogs – a wonderful experience!

If you need further advice, please consult a psychologist.