Harvard Mental Health Letter

Ask the doctor: How does someone overcome fear of dogs?

Q. I've recently started dating a man who is afraid of dogs. The problem is, I've owned a black lab for 10 years and don't want to surrender my pet. Are there any treatments for this type of phobia?

A. Fear of dogs, known clinically as cynophobia, is a type of stimulus-specific phobia. I'm not sure what happened in your boyfriend's situation, but some people develop cynophobia after being frightened or bitten by a dog. In others, the problem develops for no apparent reason. Treatment is available, and your boyfriend will need to be willing to devote the time to it, but let's set that negotiation aside for the moment. The good news is that he does not have to become a dog lover. He just has to be comfortable with your dog (one that I'm imagining has a sweet, affectionate temperament).

Cynophobia is treated in the same way as other specific phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) or acrophobia (fear of heights). The main treatment is a form of behavioral therapy called desensitization, also known as exposure therapy. Working with a therapist (or sometimes on their own) people gradually expose themselves to the source of their phobia until it no longer scares them.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »