PHOBIA OF DOGS - is that something for us dog owners? By Lena Steffner Starrin

Normally we don't say phobia when people are afraid of dogs but we must understand that when a person is so afraid that she tries her best not to be near dogs at all, it is a phobia.


The description of "phobia" is to feel a strong anxiety in situations that are relatively safe, and an overwhelming urge to avoid uncomfortable situations. Phopos means "fly" in Greek and that is unfortunately what persons who are afraid of dogs are doing. A phobia is to be irrationally afraid of an object (eg. An animal) or situation (eg. Flying in an airplane).


I learned from reading various books and articles that:

  • The phobic person has to be MOTIVATED to be able to work with the phobia
  • There needs to be CO-OPERATION between the client and the trainer to overcome this phobia
  • It is really important that the client is INFORMED of what will happen and that the trainer has their PERMISSION to go on further
  • The client must be able to completely TRUST the trainer


I also learned from literature that dog phobic persons often have little experience of, and knowledge about, dogs. They are more often afraid of big dogs but it is even more often the activity of the dog and the owner's control of the dog which is most important.


It is hard to know how many dog phobic persons there are because they don't try to get help. The number in the middle of 1980 was 13 % in Germany and 11% in USA . We can guess that there are now more rather than less dog phobic people around in 2005. My personal experience of being a dog owner for almost 40 years is that I meet more people who are afraid of dogs nowadays than when I had my first dog.


I had the opportunity to work with a 13 year old girl who was afraid of dogs in general and her grandmother's dog in particular. I met her and worked with her about 10 times. The first two times we just talked and at the end of these talking sessions I taught her -

  • Not to face or look at the dog (eye contact can be a threatening signal to dogs who are meeting strangers for the first time) - see calming signal
  • Walk in a curve towards a dog rather than approach it in a straight line (dogs approach each other in curves when meeting for the first time) - see calming signal
  • Walk SLOWLY (a very strong calming signal to dogs that you are no threat to its safety)
  • Keep her arms still and relaxed by her side and not to wave them around or move them suddenly.


In the following sessions we trained with one of my dogs, a Jack Russell Terrier that is a very sensitive dog. We started with a distance of at least 20 meters between the girl's mother walking the dog and the girl and I looking at the dog and talking about what we saw. When the dog panted (she got so much sausage while walking!) the girl was afraid at seeing the dog's teeth. We talked about that and I explained why dogs do so.


  As the sessions progressed we reduced the distance and I used a see-through fence to be near the dog, and still not too near. She learned to get the dog to sit and lay down and she was so impressed with the dog.

Eventually the girl felt confident enough to walk the dog on its leash with it on one side of the see-through fence and the girl on the other. I took photos of her and the dog and she was so proud!



The sessions went on and by the the seventh session the girl felt able to hold the dog on its leash without the fence and we took a short walk together.

The next three times we met in the girl's garden and my dog was off its leash. The girl was taught to ignore the dog and then she wanted to call for the dog and caress and stroke her. On the last session we went to her grandmother's house to se the "beast". The "beast" didn't do anything when the girl ignored him and we walked him on its leash in the garden. After that I think the girl saw things from another point of view.


I am extremely happy that this girl has more confidence in herself in contact with dogs and I think we dog owners are the best to help people who are afraid of dogs because we know about dogs - see Understanding Your Dog for further information about dog behaviour.


Literature -

  • Svensson L: Specific Phobias in Children and Adolescents: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach. Dep of Psychology Stockholm University, 2001.
  • Öst L-G: One-session Treatment for Specific Phobias. Behav Res Ther Vol 27,No 1, pp 1-7, 1989.
  • Öst L-G: Rapid Treatment of Specific Phobias. Phobias - a handbook of Theory, Research and Treatment. Edited by GCL Davy. Chapter 12, 1997.

About the author of this article - Lena Steffner Starrin

I work as a physiotherapist in a pain clinic in Karlstad, Sweden. My family consist of my husband, two daughters and a granddaughter. I have two old Jack Russell Terriers, Ella and Trixie.


I had a dream to work with dogs - now my dream comes true! In February 2005 I will have my first class, which I have named "Stress and Calming Signals in dogs".

I have had dogs since childhood but it was not until about the year 2000, when I met the Swedish dog trainer Kina Molitor, I learned about non- violent methods. Some people wake up late! I attended the one year dog training school Hagen Hundeskole, Turid Rugaas 2002 - 2003. For me it was kind of a shock to realise what I had done to my dogs before.


The most important task, as I see, is to teach people not to be "unconsciously" being violent to their dogs.

You are welcome to visit my web site - www.hundoro.com


This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).


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