Fear of animals is common and can be treated, psychologist says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am

Chloe Tse never forgot when she was five years old and got chased by a dog. Living in Sha Tin at the time, the 24-year old says there were always dogs running around. 'My natural reaction was to run, but looking back now, I think it was probably just trying to be friendly by chasing me,' Tse says. 'I just didn't want the dog to touch me. I find them dirty.'

Gradually, her fear of man's best friend has subsided. At 12, Tse was forced to stay with a family friend who had a Golden Retriever. 'It was really well trained, so it wasn't scary,' she says. Two years later, she started regularly visiting a friend who had a Shih Tzu. 'It was old and wouldn't pounce, so I started feeling better around them. I don't like it when a dog is hyper or barks a lot - that freaks me out.'

According to Edward Kwong, senior clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre, dog phobias frequently occur. 'It's quite a common fear,' Kwong says. While countless people are scared of insects, frogs and snakes, Kwong explains that many phobias are not logical as a fear isn't necessarily linked to dangerous or poisonous animals.

He says some phobias are affected by location and environment. He gives the example that Malaysians are not, in general, scared of snakes. 'In Malaysia, people grow up with snakes, you see them everywhere. There's a huge temple with hundreds of live snakes and the local kids play with them and they are not afraid at all. It really depends on the country,' says Kwong, who specialises in anxiety, panic, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

All phobias, according to the theory of classical conditioning, are learned by association. Objects or animals that originally produced neutral emotions can be altered when connected to negativity. 'If you are feeling uptight and are in a mental state of anxiety or nervousness, and then you see a dog, you'll automatically link the dog with fear,' Kwong says.

Another phobia-stricken patient of Kwong's was terrified of snakes. For 20 years, he couldn't sleep since he dreamt of snakes in his bed. 'He was a soldier and, one night, a friend of his put a snake in his bed. Then he got this phobia. He had problems with sleeping, flashbacks, and he couldn't go to the beach or jungle.'

A traumatic event does not, however, always trigger a phobia. Kwong says a person can have repeated pairings with a dog without incident. But with every occasion, the person becomes more uptight with the fear-producing subject, until one day the fear suddenly develops into a full-blown phobia.

For those who live in fear of seeing a dog or a snake, Kwong says treatments using 'systematic desensitisation work on patients 100 per cent'. The technique was developed by psychologist Joseph Wolpe who slowly exposed patients to low levels of the stimulus. Gradually, Wolpe increased exposure of the stimulus while teaching patients relaxation techniques; eventually the anxiety faded. 'Desensitisation is an excellent way to treat phobias. The phobia can be treated easily in gradual steps - by meeting the fear and confronting it to make the fear go away,' Kwong advises.

These days, Tse regularly plays with a poodle her father owns. She says: 'My dad got it three years ago, I'm not scared of it anymore.'