Who’s Afraid of Cats and Dogs?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in Animal Phobia

Dr Danny Derby and the Cognetica Center Staff – The Israeli Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Alon, 38, suffered from Canine Phobia from an early age. When he was five, Alon went with his mother to visit relatives who had a dog, and when he approached the dog with the intention of petting him – as his relative suggested – the dog jumped at him. Alon was very scared and began to cry, and his mother also demonstrated her alarm. This event was the trigger that began Alon’s fear of dogs. At first Alon kept a distance from any dogs on the road, would respond by crying if a dog approached him and would demand that the dog be taken away. As an adult he continued to behave in the same manner, though he asked to have the dog removed in a less dramatic fashion. As the years went by, the fear became more widespread: Alon avoided walking down streets where private homes were situated for fear of meeting up with a dog let loose in a garden which might, perhaps, have an open gate, he would also cross over to the other side of the street or even completely changed his route, if he saw a dog who appeared to him to be threatening, even if the dog was tied up or on a leash.

Finally, in his early twenties, Alon reached the point where even the sight of a dog caused him anxiety, even if the dog was not close to him, and he avoided a wide range of places for fear of running into dogs. Unfamiliar places were also problematic, since he didn’t know if there would be dogs there or not. Sometimes he avoided new places and sometimes he made exhaustive enquiries, agreed to go only when accompanied, or drove to the entrance of the place and only got out of the car after carrying out a thorough inspection of the area.

What is feline or canine phobia?
A phobia is extreme or even paralyzing fear of a certain situation or object, with canine and feline phobia being amongst the most common. In most cases, these phobias appear initially during childhood or adolescence, and tend to be chronic conditions that continue throughout life. Those suffering from canine or feline phobia experience fear or deep disgust when they come in contact with these animals. The fear is not limited to the actual duration of contact, but can also extend to many other instances where there is a possibility or probability of coming in contact with the animal feared, causing actual damage to the person’s functioning level and quality of life. Should the phobia be left untreated, it may well grow more extensive and intrude upon the person’s everyday life, causing restrictions in everyday functioning.

As stated, the phobia can start as the result of an unpleasant encounter with a dog or cat or by observing from the side an unpleasant occurrence experienced by someone else, accompanied by a reaction of alarm. Learning also has an important role in the development of this phobia, and children of parents suffering from these phobias are susceptible to developing them themselves, since they see the fear and their parents’ avoidance of animals. For instance, a child who sees his mother crossing over to the other side of the road when she sees a dog, feels her holding his hand more firmly while glancing frequently at the dog, will learn that dogs are dangerous things and should be avoided.
Though this is a very common disorder, and despite the relatively short time needed for therapy that shows high percentages of improvement, only one quarter of those suffering from the phobia actually apply for therapy. The reasons for this are mainly the prevalence of the problem (since so many suffer from some phobia or other, the feeling is that one is talking about a normative situation and not one that can be treated) and fear of the therapy, which demands confrontation with the object of the fear itself. It is important to point out that the therapists themselves are aware of this difficulty, and the therapy program takes this into account and it is carried out in gradual stages, with the aim of reaching recovery without undergoing undue distress.

How is Canine or Feline Phobia treated?
The most effective treatment of phobias is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – therapy dealing with changing thought and behavior patterns for better coping with the threatening factor. The therapy, which focuses solely on the phobia and does not stray to other issues, thus allows for considerable improvement to be reached in a short time, usually within 12 – 24 sessions

The cognitive section instills knowledge of the animal feared, information about fear itself and learning about coping skills. In addition, superstitions and beliefs that the person has are examined and in the event that these assumptions or beliefs are extreme and unrealistic, work is done on creating more accurate perceptions and thoughts that are less threatening. For instance, many persons suffering from Canine Phobia believe that dogs can smell fear and will attack a person who feels afraid. This premise is examined during therapy and it will become clear that dogs do not have super-powers; they can only discern fear in a person according to that person’s behavior, which in itself gives a person more control over the situation and reduces the feeling of threat.

The behavioral section is the central part of the therapy. Some people don’t need to address the cognitive aspects, since they are already aware that their fear is irrational and exaggerated and consequently there are no thought patterns that need to be changed. Therefore, there are those who need only to take part in the Behavioral Section. In this section, the person begins to be exposed to the threatening factor in a gradual and controlled manner. The gradual pace is extremely important; many people suffering from phobias are afraid to go for treatment because they can summon pictures to mind, that just thinking about them causes them extreme anxiety (they are buried under a pile of cats, a dog jumps out at them and they freeze on the spot in terror, and so on).

In actual fact, these scenarios are far from true. Usually, at the beginning of therapy, each person is asked to look at photos of the animal, or if that is too difficult, even to read texts or look at drawings. This is carried out in the company of a therapist, who supports the person, helps him to overcome his difficulty and to see that when he perseveres and doesn’t run away despite his anxieties, the intensity of the anxiety subsides. After this, the person is asked to practice what he has done at the meeting when he gets home. Each time the person feels relatively at ease with something that previous to the therapy had been a threat, he goes up one more step, up till the tangible meetings with dogs or cats. Those meetings are also carried out very gradually; for instance, walking with the therapist on a street with dogs, being near a dog that is tied up, petting a small puppy that someone else is holding, and so on.

How does the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Israel fit into the picture?
At the final stages of the therapy in Canine or Feline Phobia, the therapist comes from the Cognetica Center to the Society with the patient, and there an actual encounter with an animal takes place. In the Society there are various types of animals of all ages, sizes and breeds. This variety, and the therapists’ close acquaintance with the animals, allows the matching of a specific dog to every stage in the process that the person has reached; be it a quiet dog who will not approach a person even if he is right beside him, a small puppy who is full of enthusiasm and curiosity who will jump up and want to play with him, or a big dog who is used to letting out a loud bass bark from time to time. In addition, the therapists can help the patient to approach an animal and teach him how to behave towards him, which allows him to feel that he is in control and to change the way in which he conducts himself with the dog or cat.

These meetings also have an added value: not only do they lessen anxiety, they can help create a different and positive experience. During the course of treatment, some of the patients discover a new and wonderful world and they fall in love with one of the dogs or cats with which they have worked.

Cognetica Center , under the directorship of Dr. Danny Derby, is a treatment center offering short-term, target-focused psychological therapy to those suffering from specific problems such as treatment of anxiety, depression, post-trauma or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and deeper treatments for changing life patterns and complex or unfocused difficulties.