This week, as I made my way to work, a terrifying creature confronted me. In the hall between the building entrance and the door to my office, it stood menacingly, staring me down while showing off its sharp teeth. Despite it being winter in the U.K., drops of sweat ran down my face as I waited for the beast to come for me.
“Archie! Archie boy!” a voice shouted from atop the stairs.
The demon — a 12-pound, snow-white Bichon — turned and ran toward the voice, letting out high-pitched barks as his owner (aka the guy from the start-up upstairs) hugged him. Meanwhile, I let out a huge sigh of relief that the showdown was over.
If you couldn’t tell already, I’m a 27-year-old man who is afraid of dogs. It’s a fear that originated in childhood as the pitbulls in my part of South London were bred for fighting (both other dogs and humans).
I swear, though, that I’m not scared of much else. Not heights. Not spiders. Not the war zones from which I’ve reported. But dogs, well… They’ve prevented me from visiting friends at their houses or running in parks. Basically, in a dog-loving country like the U.K., where some families prefer their pets over their own kids, it’s safe to say that my fear of dogs has had a significant impact on my social and professional life.
Luckily, I’m not totally alone. A 2016 report from the British charity The Dogs’ Trust found that 1 in 7 parents were more afraid of dogs than their children. Similarly, the U.K. polling agency YouGov listed cynophobia, or a fear of dogs, as one of the 13 most common British phobias of people between the ages of 16 and 55. And while there isn’t specific data for the U.S., the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that more than 19 million Americans have some kind of animal-related phobias.
It’s not easy to kick, either. The Dogs’ Trust has programs that help children become less afraid of dogs, but nothing for adults, who often have to resort to costly private therapy — e.g., organizations like the U.K.-based Healing Paws can charge hundreds of pounds for private therapy sessions.
And so, most adults leave their fear of dogs untreated, which, in turn, essentially ruins their lives. There’s no better example of this than James, a 30-year-old lawyer. A few years ago, he was engaged to Karen, a woman he still believes is “the love of my life.” James and Karen (both pseudonyms) had met at university and later attended graduate school together. At the time, they both lived in student dorms, where there was a strict no-pets policy. But when they moved into their own flat in London, they started “fighting pretty much every day” because Karen was desperate to get a dog. “She’s a huge dog lover, and her family had two big ones when she was growing up,” James explains. He did visit her family’s house a few times, but he was able to spend most of his time in rooms the dogs weren’t in, where admittedly, he engaged in “lots of awkward conversation.”
Still, he and Karen “never had a conversation about getting a dog of our own. She assumed that we’d be getting one, and I assumed we wouldn’t — just because it would be hard to raise one in the city. That allowed me to keep my fear of dogs to myself for years.” When it was impossible to keep it to himself any longer, though, Karen didn’t really take it all that seriously. “She couldn’t understand anyone who would be genuinely afraid of them,” James explains. “She had said that I’d get used to having one around the house, but I knew that wouldn’t happen because I’d been so afraid for so long.”
Eventually, he continues, “she felt that breaking up was the best thing to do. She said that in her life, she wanted to have a couple of dogs, and needed someone who could care for them as much as she did.” Her engagement ring still sits in its case in James’ bedside drawer.
Again, laugh and mock if you must, but my DMs are flooded with men in their 20s, 30s and early 40s telling me that they’re “embarrassed” about their fear of dogs because “it just seems ridiculous.” One guy says it’s particularly bad around the holidays (the embarrassment is so great none of them wanted to use their real names). “We usually go to my uncle and aunt’s house for dinner, and they have this big Alsatian that everyone loves — except me. I’m really scared of it, because I had a bad experience with a dog that looked like him when I was younger. So when I come over, the dog has to go in another room, or they put him outside. When we have dinner, it comes up to the door, and you can see everyone wants to let it in. But they won’t because of me and my phobia. I can definitely tell they resent me for it, even if they don’t say so.”
“Most of the time, people who are afraid of dogs are just confused because it’s an issue of communication,” says Glen Stanford, a dog trainer who refers to himself as the “U.K.’s dog whisperer” and who has worked with hundreds of fearful clients since starting his business in 2012. “To have a good relationship with [dogs], you need to treat them like you’d treat any [human being] you’d come across in your day-to-day life.”
Stanford adds that while those with a deep-seated fear of dogs are “better off going to a professional psychologist and getting a proper diagnosis,” most clients he deals with can’t get over a bad experience with a particular dog that they end up projecting onto all other canines they encounter. Consequently, they tend to lack an understanding of what dogs actually want and need, and how easy it is to cooperate with them.
“At the end of the day, every dog needs a spoonful of security, shelter and food,” Stanford says. “They need love from people, and they also need the basic training to work with them. It’s a lot like humans — everyone needs a sense of value, and without that, there’s no way they’ll show respect to other people.” In other words: “Dogs need to know who they’re dealing with so they can act appropriately. They can get confused about what the humans they’re dealing with want, so they can easily miscommunicate too. It’s about taking the time to understand who the dog is, and what situation both the dog and the person communicating with it expect from each other.”
Whether Stanford’s advice will help me overcome my fear of dogs is yet-to-be-seen. But at the very least, I was able to walk past Archie today and even give him a slightly awkward wave as I left the office.