For more than 40 years I’ve had a crippling fear of dogs. Here’s how I dealt with it

Human Givens therapy was a game-changer for me, my husband and our two children

Gabrielle with Cannon in June, 2021. Photograph: Darren Rice

Gabrielle with Cannon in June, 2021. Photograph: Darren Rice

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“Would you mind putting your dog on a lead; my wife has a dog phobia?”

“What is she doing at a beach then?”

For more than 40 years I’ve had a crippling phobia, so awkward interactions of this nature are a regular occurrence. My family and friends try their best to protect me but usually a severe panic attack ensues, bringing with it a racing heart, sweaty palms, flowing tears and the inevitable evaporation of any logic.

Ireland is a country of dog lovers.

Avoiding locations where I might meet a stray dog off a lead takes planning. I love the outdoors and I’d like nothing more than to hike up the Comeragh mountains, stroll around Waterford city’s picturesque nature park or go for a run along Woodstown strand. These are all places I’ve avoided because to me, they’re “dog-owner territory”. I’ve coined a word “dogdar” to describe my phobia. It means I can see/hear/sense a dog a mile off while strangers around me remain oblivious to my hyper alertness.

It wasn’t until my daughter was born in 2010 that I realised I needed to get help for something that had been impacting my life for as long as I could remember. A co-worker suggested I attend a hypnotherapist who was known for having successfully treated phobias. I took the leap of faith, set up an appointment and stuck with it for many sessions. I know hypnotherapy has worked for others, but it just wasn’t for me. I continued with my life and tried to ignore the fact that panic attacks were increasingly impacting on my day to day, especially now with two small children. In more recent years, I have come away from beach trips, more stressed than when I arrived, because of so many dogs off leashes.

Waterford city bylaws are saved on my phone, so I can quickly show them to aggressive dog owners who refuse to put their pet on a lead. Mostly, they reluctantly agree when they see proof that it’s the law, but some dog owners have refused point blank. On those occasions, I have gone home feeling drained and defeated. Of course, I’ve met many respectful dog owners too but the former understandably has left a more lasting negative effect.

Catalyst for change

While I know I should be seeking out help for my own benefit, the truth is my children have been the main catalyst. My 10-year-old daughter’s fear levels are creeping as high as mine, having learned the behaviour from me. An incident in Dunmore East last year was another turning point for me to seek help. We were on Councillor’s Strand, enjoying a sunny summer evening when my “dogdar” suddenly went into overdrive. I could hear a dog barking excitedly, far away at the top of the hill, but the sound started to get closer, quickly. When I saw the dog bounding down the hill at speed, I screamed for help. The animal was steps away from my son and me before the owners managed to get him back on a lead.

To be fair to them, they were extremely apologetic, but I knew my reaction to the experience had already registered strongly with my six year old. Up to that day, I had shielded him from being directly impacted by my phobia and so he had enjoyed interacting with dogs.

Share your story: Do you have a fear of dogs?

Unsurprisingly, there was a noticeable change in my son’s behaviour after he had been in the arms of his mum while she was coping with a major panic attack. I have no doubt he felt every muscle of mine squeeze tighter around him, along with my hysterical screams for help, bellowing in his ear.

A phobia is “an irrational fear of something that’s unlikely to cause harm”. The key word is “irrational”. It doesn’t matter how many times you say to someone who’s having a panic attack: “Ah, he/she won’t touch you”, your rational thinking is falling on deaf ears to someone like me who has a vivid imagination to add to the phobia. In those split seconds, I’ve already decided your cute fur baby is out to get me.

Emotional needs

Enter Human Givens therapy. Founded in 1992, this approach integrates elements of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to provide a holistic treatment. In a promotional video, co-founder Joe Griffin says “if you are getting your emotional needs met, your mental health will thrive”. He goes on to identify three barriers which may hinder those needs being met:

1. Toxic environment - eg a child raised in abusive circumstances.

2. Innate guidance systems that are 50 per cent genetic/50 per cent learned but not being properly nourished. (Griffin believes the culture to which we are born into must provide us with the proper coping skills to ensure our emotional needs are being sufficiently met throughout our life.)

3. Damage because of a physical or emotional trauma.

Last year, I began a course of Human Givens-based therapy which is helping me to finally tackle my dog phobia. Naively, I thought it would take just a few sessions. What transpired was 10 months of regular, intense sessions combined with targeted “homework” in between.

I have gradually realised that my anxiety disorder is not about dogs. My phobia stems from a few risk factors but most significantly, a childhood trauma. I don’t know when the sexual abuse began, but my earliest memory is six years old, and my last memory is when I was 10. Someone who knew better took control of me and my body and I didn’t understand at the time that it was wrong. Those years are vitally formative for a child’s development. For me, it was the start of a crippling anxiety disorder that stunted my emotional growth.

When I realised at 17 years old that I was a survivor of abuse, I sought out help and received support from various councillors, both here in Ireland and while I studied in America. The important lesson I learned is that I had to keep trying until I found support that works for me. My psychotherapist has spent the last 10 months sensitively and expertly navigating me through various barriers. I’ve come to understand that my phobia is really about my perception of not being in control. In that moment, I believe my personal space is going to be brutally invaded without my permission. I don’t want to live with that excruciating fear anymore.

Golden retriever

Recently, I felt strong enough to put my hard work to the test. A dog-loving and empathetic friend volunteered to introduce my children and me to her gorgeous and, more crucially, calm, 10-year-old golden retriever called Cannon. The three of us were tentative at first but I quickly drew on my newly acquired skills. Thirty minutes later, I was throwing a ball for the dog to catch.

My six year old, seeing my confidence, quickly followed suit and my 10-year-old daughter who has been the most impacted by my phobia, reached out to rub the dog too. I can’t adequately describe the joy I felt at watching my boy play so lovingly with this beautiful animal that just wanted to play too.

With my newfound confidence, I asked another friend, later that week, if I could meet with her husky Marley. It was possibly a step too far too soon. I was visibly shaking while I rubbed him even though he was on a lead the whole time. While I acknowledge it was an exhausting experience, I’m also proud that I didn’t run. Afterwards I felt drained but exhilarated too.

Gabrielle with Peter, Kate and Cannon. Photograph: Darren Rice
Gabrielle with Peter, Kate and Cannon. Photograph: Darren Rice

I know these two episodes are just part of an ongoing journey but a massive milestone nonetheless so I’m taking the time now, to stop and savour the moment. I posted a video online, of me playing with Cannon. Family and friends were initially shocked but immediately supportive.

They know this is a game-changer not only for me, but for my husband and our two children too. They’ve all witnessed my panic attacks and I know they’ve felt frustration at not being able to help. It’s liberating to understand I can now go wherever I want; an ironic feeling to have during a global pandemic.

If you’re reading this as someone dealing with anxiety and would like to get help but you’re wondering “how can I gauge what is the right approach for me?”, I’ll leave the final word to Griffin: “A long-term answer to mental illness is a life that works.”

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