Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Overcoming Dogphobia, Volume One.

Of the various deviations from mental normalcy that I have - whatever that is - one of the more tedious and socially debilitating is an acute fear of dogs. I don't know where this fear started, though I expect that stories about pit bulls killing people hitting the papers around the time CUJO was on repeat play on cable had a big part to play.

I should clarify: I don't fear all dogs. If it's small enough that I could keep its mouth closed with one hand, I'm fine. It's when they're big enough that they might suddenly, unexpectedly lunge at your throat and tear it out (which is typically what I imagine happening) that problems arise. I have met big dogs that I come to trust (like a friend's old arthitic German shepherd - catlike in disposition, could barely walk) but they are few and far between. Most are the enemy.

So I cross the street when I see a big dog, even if they're on a leash. I take alternate entrances into supermarkets if there's a dog tied up in front of one of them. I avoid visiting friends who have large dogs. I freak out when people bring their dogs to work.

Of late, I've had a spate of experiences where I've had to confront this fear, above and beyond the average. I had a brief relationship with a woman who was crazy about dogs, and would sing their praises, and show me pictures of "cute" (gigantic, huge, fucking scary) dogs. I had a co-worker habitually bring his dog (a dog I, and nobody else, found quite threatening) to work. I went to a recording session, and a dog was there. I came home about two months ago to a visiting large dog in our living room (note: when I say "large", I generally refer to any dog who can gnaw my testicles off whilst remaining on all fours), and immediately had to flee the house (not the room, but the house) for the remainder of the night. That hasn't been a problem for the last six weeks, because I've been living in Dunedin, but I passed up an accommodation in town for a farther, less convenient one because the close-in had a dog. Somehow, nobody managed to mention that the farther afield one had not one but two dogs on the property - bulldogs, at that. Thankfully, I could avoid them most of the time, and did. But it was stressful, and a pain in the ass, and embarrassing.

For these and other reasons, I've decided that this is a fear I need to conquer. There's social inconveniences, of course, but also, the effects of stress. Without boring you too deeply with health shit that depending on your world view sounds more or less scary than it is, I've had some indications of elevated liver enzymes of late, which are correlated not just with alcohol use and other dietary stressors (refined carbohydraftes, like white flour and sugar, are big ones) but with stress itself. The stress response I have when there's a big dog near me - which is almost every day, one way or another - is putting unnecessary stress on my body, and while I won't pretend that all of my health problems are dog-related, every little bit helps.

Can I change? I hope so. I have to believe so. I've spent a lot of time reading neuroscience lately, and while I wouldn't class myself anything more than a blowhard overconfident amateur in the field, it is clear that the brain can and does rewire itself into adulthood. Becoming aware of core, underlying beliefs, then replacing them with realistic but saner beliefs, is a process that can hopefully get rid of my dogphobia. And this is a phobia that might be quite ripe for this sort of attack, because unlike a lot of fears that people have, this isn't rooted in self-image, but exclusively in the perception of how an animal might behave. (I certainly don't think that dogs are going to attack me because I'm a bad person. [Should I?])

Of course, the main thing that supports a new belief is experience. So I'm going through what a friend calls "dog training". Which is the process of finding low stress ways of having interactions with dogs that end with my throat intact, undermining old beliefs and reifying new ones. Apart from hanging out with friends with dogs, I find that photographing dogs that are safely tied up outside stores or what have you is a good distancing tool. If I'm thinking of the frame and hoping the dog stays still at the right angle long enough for a good picture, I'm not thinking that I need to run.

More than one of my friends has suggested that, perhaps, this is all a bit unnecessary. "You don't like dogs; that's who you are", goes the argument. And in many ways, it would be easier to just leave it at that then spend the next few years (so goes my understanding of how long it's likely to take) going through this. In the short term, it would probably be less stressful: I spent 5 minutes Saturday with a 38 kg puppy and could feel the adrenalin shaking through me more than an hour later.

But, ultimately: I need to know that I can change. Because, at the risk of expanding well outside the scope of the "dogs are/aren't scary/dangerous" question, no small part of me places what hope I do have for the world in the belief that we can overcome our limiting beliefs, not through prayer, not through "being true to yourself", not through the motherfucking Secret, but by hard, focused work.

And so: this is where I put my money where my mouth is.

I'll update in six months or so, unless anything particularly interesting happens in the interim. In the meantime, if you have any tips for overcoming dogphobia, feel free to share.


  1. Hey Doug, Anna Park here.

    As a dog lover with perhaps too little fear of dogs, I really can't imagine how this feels.

    On the other hand, I have a pretty well developed fear of being in aeroplanes, which is as irrational as all hell, and has really impacted on my desire to travel overseas as an adult.

    I'm in the process of trying to rid myself of this fear, not least because we've got a holiday to the States booked in a few months, and I'm finding that learning about aerodynamics is helping my anxiety.

    So - kudos to you for turning and facing your fear, just at the time I'm trying to face mine!

  2. cheers, Anna, and good luck to you. I have a friend who overcame a powerfully crippling fear of flying, and your comment reminded me of her excellent blog on the topic, which hopefully may be of some help to you.

  3. Thanks bud! If you need a scary looking but sweet dog to interact with later on in your quest, my Mum's dog fits the bill perfectly.