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an open letter to dog owners

Image: Dan Bennett

Image: Dan Bennett

Dear dog owners, lovers and defenders,

I apologise if it seems this letter came out of the blue. For me, it’s been a long time coming. I hope you appreciate how difficult it must be to confess this – and all at once, too.

So, the other day I was having coffee with a friend of mine in a Sydney café whose primary attraction is its lovely courtyard. The coffee at this place is also quite wonderful, which is why we keep returning, and the courtyard (yes, we’re back to the courtyard) is just delightful on a sunny winter’s day. So beautiful it could be something straight out of a Coleridge poem. It isn’t, but it could be. The aforementioned friend has a baby and this is a great place to bring a baby – there’s so much to see and so many pretty colours and flowers and decorative things, it makes my heart squeamish with delight. I can almost imagine little fairies and leprechauns dancing about the place. I’m pretty sure it’s where the unicorns rest of an evening…

Ahem, reality.

As my friend and I sat there contemplating the intricacies of life and friendship, and chatting about how cute her baby is (he really is very cute) and how great our coffee was (while I simultaneously devoured my sourdough – I hadn’t eaten since 2pm the previous afternoon), I noticed a dog wandering about the courtyard.

It seemed ill-fitting to have such an ordinary dog pottering through such a beautiful landscape. But never mind my poetic delusion, this dog kept going about his own business and I was content to let him be.

As he went about sniffing the roses and the garden and being social with other patrons, I have to say I began to feel a little anxious; what if he intended on socialising with me?

I’d read Gillian Rubeinstein’s Answers to Brut sometime around grade 8 and I know that’s supposed to make me like dogs more but honestly, it just freaked me the heck out. If there was anything literature could do to heighten my anxiety of our four-legged “friends”, this book accomplished that.

I’ve had a fear of dogs since forever. If I had to lie down on the figurative couch in a psychologist’s office while she asked me when this fear began, I’d have no idea what to tell her. But I can recall an incident when a dog chased me across the basketball courts, with the dog’s owner screaming, ‘don’t run, he’ll think you’re playing’ – a response that is obviously counterintuitive. I mean, are our bodies not programmed to either fight or flight? And let’s be clear, I run more competently than I fight (though I have been told I run like a fairy, so you need only imagine my fighting ability).

Since this day I have been plagued with useless gems of what people think is good advice. ‘Dogs smell fear’, they arrogantly implore. This is not advice per se. It is a phrase that really does nothing but make me more afraid. Telling me to cease being afraid because dogs can smell it only serves to exacerbate my already irrational fear of the canine.

A simple Google search and three seconds on Wikipedia tells me that a fear of dogs is called Cynophobia and that it’s a common fear. It also tells me it can be paralyzing. Please, tell me something I don’t know.

Anyway, back to my story. So we’re sitting there, my heart rate is increasing exponentially and my palms are beginning to sweat, as Brut trots over to smell our shoes. At this point, every muscle in my body contracts and I hold onto my friend’s hand for dear life and declare, “Oh my God, May, I’m so scared of dogs!” – in case the colour draining from my face wasn’t indication enough.

‘You’re really afraid’, May muses. She’s the kind who ponders life at the most inopportune moments.

‘It’s a childhood thing’, I explain between rehearsed deep breaths.

At this moment, a maintenance man, shall we call him Steve? Yes, let’s. Maintenance Steve pops his head around the corner.

‘Are you OK with dogs?’ He asks?

‘We just don’t want the dog around the baby’ answers chivalrous May, whose only real concern is whether the dog will slobber over her organic squashed avocado.

‘Oh he’s really friendly’, Maintenance Steve pipes up.

Your face is friendly, I think. Strangely, I mean this as an insult.

‘I had a baby two days ago and he loves Bingo. Kids love to play with him’, continues Maintenance Steve.

By this time I’m blowing in and out of a paper bag.

‘Congratulations!’ squeals May.

I cannot take it anymore. Buster is still sniffing at my shoes and I can no longer fend off the recurring visions of having my feet torn off in one carnivorous bite by a dog I barely know.

This is how it ends, I think.

‘I have a genuine fear of dogs!’ The words escape from my mouth like shrapnel in an explosion.

Maintenance Steve launches into yet another monologue that would put even Shakespeare to shame, if only the content were remotely interesting. Something something something Buddy is the best dog in the whole world <3

My first thought is why the hell did you ask me if I was OK around dogs if you weren’t going to take my phobia seriously? My second thought is why the hell are you back at work two days after your wife gave birth? And then, of course, my life flashed before my very eyes, not unlike a montage of a long standing actress in a daytime soap right before she meets her noble fate. Unfortunately for me there would be no unexpected return where we discover I was living with amnesia for 22 years and I am not in fact a Saudi princess.

You can probably guess how this ends. Spoiler alert: I survive. Just.

I am sorry I don’t share your enthusiasm for furry friends, Maintenance Steve, and I’m glad you’ve found love in a hopeless place. But I ask you and all dog owning, canine loving, furry-friend breeding masters to please keep your dog the hell away from companypaying customers when they make it abundantly clear they are afraid of them.

Unless, of course, you’re happy to pay the $200 (per session) for my therapy. I’m not great at math, but I’d say this one’s a no brainer.

With love,

All Cynophobes xx

4 thoughts on “an open letter to dog owners

  1. I feel you on this. I had a run-in with a dog on the street while walking home from the bus stop the other day. It did that thing where it sort of digs its paws in, then ran at me. I started screaming and hit it with my bag, then ran. Somewhere in a house behind me I heard someone yell “sorry!” Luckily I wasn’t bitten, but I was crying and shaking the entire rest of my run home. I LOVE dogs, and I would love to own a dog one day, but people really need to be aware that just because their dog is sooooo good around them and their children, that means absolutely nothing to anyone else. Peeps need to remember that their dog is still an animal, even if it’s a part of their family.
    I’m glad you’re okay!

  2. I’m a very recent, first-time dog-owner and I really feel for you on this. Ours is a rescue dog, and he’s very nervous around other canines – which we’ve discovered has been a battle, because the majority dog-owners we meet on our walks prefer a laissez-faire, off-the-leash attitude (even just walking around the neighbourhood, or children’s play parks that are clearly not DOG parks). These dogs come racing up to our little guy, jump all over him and scare the beejesus out of him, and the chilled dog owner inevitably calls out something like; “It’s fine! He’s friendly!”

    Great. Congratulations, your dog is friendly – but I’m not.

    I’m new to this whole dog-owner thing, so maybe that’s given me some outsider perspective. But this laid-back, any-dog-is-a-friendly-dog attitude is bizarre and wrong, wrong, wrong. I hate to imagine if one of these rampaging canines came bounding over to someone with cynophobia – forget it. By the time they’ve gone through their “It’s fine! He’s perfectly friendly! He loves strangers!” spiel, you’ve had a mini heart-attack.

    I actually think there needs to be a re-education for dog-owners. What’s polite and acceptable, versus what works for YOU and YOUR dog. I mean, it’s not rocket science.

  3. I read this article and concluded I must have wrote it myself under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from the dog-owning community. THIS is what I’ve wanted to say all my life. What they don’t understand is that no amount of exposure to the warm, wet, canine tongues that they find so pleasurable, is ever going to make me feel comfortable around dogs. They wonder how, after unleashing their excited, jumpy dogs on you, who are “only playing”, you are still visibly shaken. All too often, I have to endure their spruiking of the benefits of canine companionship, when all I want is for them to keep it out of biting and licking distance away from me.

  4. I’ve had dogs since i was 4…so yes, i’m a massive dog lover. I don’t really understand people’s fear of them as adults however any responsible dog owner should always keep them on a leash near other people. Because you NEVER know what your dog will do, or as in this case, if people are not okay with them.

    Saying “oh he’s friendly” doesn’t make people cope any more or less. A fear is a fear. I actually think it’s very honest of you to admit it because i can imagine a lot of people would be like “BUT WHYYY? They’re so cute” rather than sympathise with you.

    But i hope you work through it eventually!! Or i at least hope the next dog owner you come across is a responsible one!

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