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Essay: “Man’s best friend” is my worst nightmare

Courtesy of Lindsay Ross

Lindsay Ross is a graduate magazine student who will be an editorial intern this summer at Our Sunday Visitor in Huntington, Ind. Her dog phobia extends to animals of all sizes; she will only "pet" her dwarf hamster, Lucky, with a spoon.

May 2, 2011 | 2:04 a.m. CST

I consider myself a composed person. But when my phobia is triggered, all poise melts away and my survival instincts kick in. I feel a surge of adrenaline, and I want to run or hide. But if I run, I’ll be chased, so I mostly hide. When I look at a dog, I can’t see the harmlessness of a family pet. My mind can only register the pointed teeth, the sharp claws and what I perceive to be a calculating and threatening look in the eye. I think every dog is on a personal mission to hunt me down; even if it plays nice, it’s just waiting for me to let my guard down so it can attack.

 Cynophobia is defined as an irrational or abnormal fear of dogs — in other words, being afraid of dogs in nonthreatening situations. This definition would deem it acceptable, for example, to be afraid of a strange Doberman pinscher running at you full speed, aggressively barking and teeth bared. 

My fear goes a tad beyond that. For example, a few years ago I flew to Orlando to visit a friend who had moved there. I was being introduced to his roommate when out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a miniature Dachshund puppy, teetering around clumsily. His name was Turk, and he was the poster puppy for “nonthreatening.” But my mind registered the dog’s adorableness factor at the same time as his ability to claw me to death with his sharp little nails. 

Within moments of our eyes meeting, the tiny thing made me shriek in terror as I jumped on the couch and shielded myself with pillows. What a first impression I must have made on my friend’s roommate. I looked like a lunatic, all because a miniature puppy was trying to nibble on my toes.

In hindsight, I can see the absurdity of my reaction. But when I see a dog, panic hijacks the part of my brain that controls rational thought. The thing about phobias is they don’t have to make sense. And mine will not be cured by all the reassurance in the world regarding the docility of dogs. 

I cannot express how sick I am of hearing, “Oh, he won’t hurt you!” as I hide behind the nearest person, tree or pillow to put something — anything — between me and the source of my anxiety. The dog’s owner usually laughs at my dramatic reaction and talks about how “friendly” the dog is. Although I do appreciate the assurance that my arm won’t be bitten off, what dog-lovers don’t understand is that I’m almost as afraid of a dog behaving excitedly toward me as I would if it were menacing. A dog pouncing on me out of sheer delight still usually ends with me screaming. 

It’s not that I’m a dog-hater. I think dogs are great companions — for other people. From a safe distance, I think they are cute and amusing. When people learn of my phobia, they usually assume I had a traumatic childhood experience involving dogs. This is not the case, which makes it even harder for others to understand my fear. I’ve never had a dog and was not around them much as a child. As long as I can remember I’ve been afraid of them. My younger sister shares my fear, though to a lesser degree. I can’t help but think I passed down my phobia to her. 

Most dog owners expect friends and strangers alike to happily submit themselves to their pets’ jumping, drooling, licking and intrusive sniffing. To recoil from disgust or, in my case, fear can be perceived as offensive. It’s similar to how new parents expect others to fawn over their little bundle of joy and can’t quite grasp why someone would do otherwise. People take it personal.

For the record, I’m also afraid to hold babies. It’s a wonder I have any friends at all.

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