Growing up, I was terrified of dogs. Big, little, vicious, harmless: they were all the same to me. I’m not sure when or how I developed my body-tensing, heart-dropping canine fear. But please believe that it made me leery of crossing the threshold of any house where a dog was rumored to live. I’d ask in advance to prepare myself. “Do you have any pets?” I’d venture tentatively. And I’d surreptitiously roll my eyes every time someone cooed, “Go ‘head and pet him. He don’t bite….” Yeah, right. Maybe it was my overactive imagination. Or those freak accidents the news occasionally reports about pit bulls locking their jaws on children. Maybe it was being chased around a small front yard tree by a chihuahua with bared teeth and a surprisingly large growl, while children snickered in the background. Maybe it was the night a doberman barreled toward my cousin and I after dark, his backyard fence left open, and the way she said, with a small degree of uncertainty, “Don’t run. He’ll stop if you don’t run.” (He did.) Or the time I was babysitting small children and their grandparents forgot to turn off the house alarm when they left, triggering the motion sensors and angering their attack dog, who they’d left in the basement.
There are other examples, other run-ins with purebreds and mutts and dogs who stood higher than my waist, whose wagging tails felt rather like being hit lightly with a baseball bat. The point is: this phobia, like so many others, really had a profound effect on my early life. Whether it kept me from relaxing into a conversation for fear that a dog would enter the room or steering clear of the homes of friends and family whose dogs freaked me out, it was a disruptive affliction.
Over time, I’ve gotten over my fear of dogs. Well, for the most part. My dad, whose city I visited most summers growing up, kept a big dog as a pet at all times. His preferred breed, for quite a while, was the Great Dane. Currently, he and his wife have a St. Bernard and a St. “Bernoodle.” During the long years when he had his first Great Dane and his second, I couldn’t stay at his place. I’d always spend nights at his sisters’ or my grandmother’s. But when I grew up, I decided to face the fear down. At some point, I’d realized that I wasn’t feeling the same heart-palpitating panic I once did if a dog entered my personal space. In fact, I’d even petted a few, feeling their large, warm hearts beating steady under the palm of hand. And so it was, that my dad’s St. Bernard, Ali, and I reached an understanding. He didn’t unleash his mammoth bark at me and I didn’t run in terror at his approach. I’ve grown to love Ali, even if I still side-eye him if he does anything unpredictable (like growl or bark at the front door or break into an unexpected run). The same is true of the St. Bernoodle, Lili, whose hyperactivity I wouldn’t have been able to accept without trembling, had it not been for Ali’s perpetual mellow.
I’ve since noticed that I walk a little freer through neighborhoods where I know dogs will leap or bark or growl as I pass by. I enter homes without my timid pet question. I can brace myself for a dog’s approach without someone explaining apologetically to the owner, “She’s really afraid of dogs.” It’s really liberating.
Do you have a phobia? How do you manage it?