Cynophobia: The crippling fear of dogs affecting 1 in 20 people

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Cynophobia can be debilitating. "Feelings of panic, terror, feeling like your life is in danger."

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For 10-year-old Max Bowen, the son of Federal Government Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, dogs cause him to stop dead – not to pat them, but in paralysing fear.

“As far as I can remember I've been completely terrified of dogs. If one was to walk by I would need to walk on the other side of the street. After a while it just got pretty bad that I couldn't even walk outside.”

Max has Cynophobia – a persistent, debilitating condition caused by extreme fear of dogs. And it’s more common than you’d expect, affecting at least one in 20 people from children to adults.

Ryan Tate is a leading animal trainer. He disciplines everything from birds to sharks but his passion is dogs:

“It’s one of those silent phobias that we don't talk about in Australia. I think we have a bit of a she'll-be-right culture and, you know, we're only just starting to step in the right direction acknowledging that mental health problems really exist in this country.”

Ryan works in tandem with Dr Anthony Berrick, a dog obedience expert, also one of the world’s only psychologists specialising in the treatment of Cynophobia. Together, they work to treat this rarely talked about condition across the globe. Dr Berrick says:

“It can be debilitating. Feelings of panic, terror, feeling like your life is in danger, that you are going to lose your mind, heart pounding, sweating, trembling, just a sense that you're unsafe and you need to get the hell out of there. You might not be able to go to the bus stop, train stations, go to parks where dogs are allowed off leash.

Menaka Perera, another patient of Dr Berrick, is now on a path to recovery. But for years, she was “embarrassed” to admit she struggled with Cynophobia. “It's not the same as a fear of snakes or fear of spiders. I want other people who have the same phobia to go out and seek help.”

Both Max and Menaka are facing their cynophobia head-on with Dr Berrick and Ryan. Max now even has a dog of his own. “I kind of feel empowered that I can do this now,” he says.

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If you have personal experience with the issues raised in this story, we're keen to hear about it. Please email a few lines about your experience to: thefeed@sbs.com.au