I used to be absolutely terrified of dogs. Not just nervous, petrified
. Far from breaking into a cold sweat and wishing I could squeal like a girl
and run away, I habitually did
squeal like a girl and run away, much to the amusement of unsympathetic bystanders and the mortification of friends behind whom I would leap in an eat-them-not-me kind of maneuvre. Walking down a suburban street and hearing a dog bark from some unseen backyard, I would tense up and hurry away, with the back of my neck
on fire and the backs of my calves tingling in anticipation of a set of snarling canines clamping on to the fleshy bits just under my sweating knees. Going to visit friends who owned dogs was an absolute no-no - even my aunt and uncle's delightfully well behaved, gentle and eldelry bitch had to be locked away in a bedroom before I would consent to come through the front door.
I hated dog people with the passion of a hundred burning suns. Their smug assurances that the dog is more scared of me than I am of it, their condescending attempts to teach me that they can smell fear, their sickening delusion that their best friend can understand every word that they're mouthing to it, their very arrogance in thinking that they can "own" another living being - I loathed it all. I developed quite a line in scathing remarks about how if God had wanted dogs to live in houses he'd have tought them to lay brick, and how people who claim to have deep emotional relationships with their dogs were sociopaths who cannot sustain a meaningful relationship with a partner that talks back.
And then what did you think I did? I went and married a farm boy. Not just any farm boy, but one whose family were dog breeders. One, in fact, whose very internet handle was, and is, you guessed it, Dog. How stupid was I, eh? Let me tell you, my flat refusal to work on any kind of coexistance with the community's large canine sub-clan did not go down well, and did not endear me to some future in-laws who were already dead set against me because I didn't ride horses, owned not a single pair of wellies and wasn't happy spending Christmas in a house with no central (or other) heating.
In hubby's credit, he put no pressure on me whatsoever, and was always very respectful of my need to be kept safe from bouncing, licking and barking. His mother and sister, however, and especially the former, totally took it as a personal insult that I wasn't prepared to coo over their ridiculous dogs, and were always lecturing me about how dog people are better than any other people, and dogs in general are just better, period. I wanted to strangle them, especially since the stupid things were always getting me into trouble. Either I would sit in their chair, or eat their buscuits, or want something at a time that was sacred to their walking... It never ended, and while with time and familiarity my visceral fear began to abate, my distrust and dislike of dogs in general only continued to grow.
Then the worst thing that could have happened, did. Stranded between jobs and houses, we had to move in to the farm for a period of at least some weeks, and I was going to have to share my living space with a dog full time, plus another, working dog in the yard. I was disheartened to say the least - bad as forced cohabitation with one's relatives can be, the presence of a toothy little monster who has exclusive rights to the ginger biscuits was going to make it all the more hellish; the fact that Rich and his sister were always at loggerheads about the best way to discipline the dogs in the first place was just icing on the cake of misery.
In an unprecendented departure from my lifelong adherence to self-pity as the solution to any problem, I decided to tackle that one head on. I asked for advice from Rich on which commands to use on the dog and how, and he gave me the best explanation of the dynamics of dog ownership I have ever heard: as far as the dog is concerned, the family is its pack. My job was to continually show it that it was lower in the pack hierarchy than I was. So all I had to do to get the dog to behave itself around me was be a bitch to it. Brilliant!
Well, it kind of started that way, but it didn't go on for long. The ridiculous, squat, silly, smelly and harebrained creature fell in love with me. She - for she quickly became a "she" to me - learned that I didn't like to be licked, and never ever licked me. She knew that I wasn't to be messed with - a "down!" or a "box!" from me meant business, and she was never tempted to try me by taking the piss. She figured out my moods, and learned to put her paws around my neck when I squatted sadly by her side and give me a proper hug. She was still a daft, spoiled, badly behaved brat who went and got herself run over to death a year later, but by then I loved her and there was no going back.
The second most important thing I learnt that summer, on top of the pack thing, is that dogs have personalities - and this I learned directly from Molly. Of course they're not as subtly developed, as complex or as emotionally developed as human personalities, but they do have them, and they also have moods, and body language. Once you learn to read doggy body language, it's much harder to be afraid, because now when you see a dog running towards you, you can't separate its wagging tail from its barking - in much the same way that if it were a person running towards you and smiling, you wouldn't be scared no matter how loudly they shouted at the same time.
By degrees, I became less frightened of other neighbourhood dogs, and then of strange dogs in general. I'm still not at the point of sticking my hands right in the mouth of any approaching Rottweiler like Rich does, but after some cautious posturing and sniffing on both sides, I'm usually more than comfortable making friends with even the biggest dogs. And what that's done is dull my fear - though not obliterated it - of a dog who's barking at me in earnest, to the point where I can just walk away from it, dignity intact.
Rich's philosophy is very much along the lines of "a house is not a home without a dog in it", and we are now planning to get a dog, as soon as we have a house and garden big enough for it to be comfortable. But even without this big development, it would have been worth it to get rid of my cynophobia, because everyday things like walks in the park or trips to the countryside have become much less stressful, and now offer the occasional joys of a really cute puppy to play with. So if you suffer from this stressful condition, by all means seek out a responsible dog owner you can trust, and enlist their help in at least easing it.
This article from Slate magazine offers an evolutionary analysis of the whole dog owning thang, if you're interested.