Becoming a dog's best friend
The late summer has brought with it a determination amongst many people to overcome their phobias, particularly ones which limit their enjoyment of the outdoors. The good news is that many people can and do get over even quite severe, long-standing phobias, often surprisingly quickly.
Surprising numbers of children and adults have a fear of dogs for example, and these can range from inconvenient to extremely unpleasant. Various polls suggest that a quarter of people with an animal phobia are cynophobes – they are afraid of dogs - and while more people overall are afraid of spiders or snakes, cynophobes are likely to experience their phobias more often, simply because there are so many dogs around.
Working with organisations such as www.dogfriendlycornwall.co.uk we are exploring ways to ensure that Cornwall gets even friendlier not only for dogs and their owners but for non-owners and cynophobes as well. This should be a win-win-win. There's no reason why all of these groups cannot peacefully and happily co-exist, even flourish. The net gains for mental and physical wellbeing all round could be huge.
A phobia is defined as an excessive fear, often recognised as unreasonable or irrational, which leads to avoidance and anxiety and interferes significantly with someone’s life. These fears can be learned from direct experience, observation or from 3rd-hand information or attitudes. It’s theorised that they can also be inherited, perhaps as genetic modifications from previous generations. Or they can be seen as a sort of evolutionary remnant - a brain function which may have made more sense in earlier, more dangerous times but which has not yet evolved away.
When undergoing treatment for a phobia it doesn’t seem to matter much where they come from. Most successful treatment methods focus on visualisation and positive outcomes rather than examining any cause. People can and do recover from even the most severe and long-standing phobias, often quite quickly. Some treatments, including hypnotherapy, use techniques which relax the ‘fight-flight’ part of our mind, allowing it to learn more appropriate responses, while strengthening and activating the more rational, sensible parts of the subconscious mind. This is a nice way to overcome a phobia, because it doesn’t require exposure.
At the Newquay Hypnotherapy practice we see a lot of people, including children, with dog, spider and other phobias. A few lessons emerge which might be helpful for parents. 1) Trying to rationally talk someone out of a phobia doesn't work - they've definitely tried that. 2) Deliberate exposure risks making it worse. 3) More helpful strategies include: acknowledge the fear, give reassurance and try to use sensible, realistic language when talking about dogs. Maybe tell positive stories involving dogs.
Parents also report spin-off benefits from helping their children. Using positive modelling (showing good examples of response and behaviour) seems to help enormously, and not only for the people being 'modelled' to. One mother recently reported "After modelling good responses for my daughter I found my own fear completely disappearing - now I'm totally fine with spiders."
Changing our perspective can also help. It’s worth remembering that dogs can be anxious too, and a small child at the same eye-height might be quite scary to a dog. Renee Payne, co-author of Be a Dog's Best Friend points out that kids under the age of 5 or 6 tend to “do all the things dogs think are impolite. Like standing still and staring." Maybe we should think about improving our manners! Similarly, it's worth remembering that dog owners may be quite unaware of how frightening some people may find their dogs.
I believe many answers to blossoming human-dog friendships can be found in changing the way we think. Some professionals who work with dogs find that people seem to relate better to the dogs when they are dressed up – even just with a bandana. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more colourful collars, coats and costumes on the dogs of Cornwall. For the time being, we can at least imagine this, and smile - which itself might help.