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What I Did to Get Over My Fear of Dogs

It was a bit extreme, but it worked.

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Woman walking golden retriever
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In 1965, I was a student in New York City, one of the canine capitals of the world, trying to cope with an intense fear of dogs (cynophobia). I’d cross the street to avoid a dog, which meant a lot of jaywalking on my way to classes.

But giving wide berth to dogs meant not socializing with dog owners, who would unfailingly assure me that the snarling dog they were gripping by the collar was only being friendly. Everyone seemed mystified that I had grown up on a Minnesota farm and could fear a domestic animal.

And no, I don’t recall ever having been attacked by a dog. I had to find a way to cope with this fear.

Later that year, I spotted suave, nattily dressed Jim Buck, a professional dog walker, herding a six-pack of dogs down the street. I confessed my terrible fear and then, for the next year, I was up at 5:30 a.m., walking dogs with him on the Upper East Side before going to class.

Months later, I became a trusted professional dog walker, handling a full-size pack of senior dogs — and well on my way to conquering my fear. Fear is normal, healthy even, when it keeps us from doing something unwise or tells us to get out of a bad situation. But sometimes it verges on a phobia — defined as an uncontrollable, irrational and lasting fear of a certain object, situation or activity — that can restrict, even take over our lives.

There’s a batch to choose from, all with fancy Latin names. Among the common phobias are snakes (ophidiophobia), clowns (coulrophobia), injections (trypanophobia), bees (apiphobia) — and two that to me go hand in hand: fear of flying (aviophobia) and fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The latter two plagued me with full-blown panic attacks in my younger years, and caused particular stress on one memorable flight.

After completing filming of the 1978 movie The Greek Tycoon at England’s Pinewood Studios, our principal cast was scheduled to fly to New York The very thought of suffering a panic attack aboard an airplane with Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset (we played sisters in the film) was so horrifying I asked to switch from British Airways to American Airlines. As luck would have it, British Airways went on strike, and I was aghast when everyone was rerouted to my flight.

The director, J. Lee Thompson, took the seat next to mine and promptly confessed he was so fearful of flying that only sipping hot sauce numbed his terror. He had a pocketful of little bottles and handed me one. I took a fiery swig, and while it anesthetized my body and brain, it did nothing to curb my anxiety. Only his wickedly entertaining stories got me safely across the pond without a meltdown. Frequent air travel eventually soothed my fear of flying, but turbulence still unhinges me.

It’s possible to avoid whatever makes you shiver, shake or suffer dry mouth, nausea or a racing heart, but at some considerable inconvenience. My friend Susan fears driving on the freeway —problematic, since she lives in Los Angeles. Marcia dreads elevators, a major challenge for her in New York. It doesn’t help that even those with phobias have little sympathy for other people’s fears.

When you’re hyperventilating and breaking out in a sweat on someone’s penthouse balcony because of your acrophobia (fear of heights), it’s not helpful to have someone tell you to “just get over” your vertigo. Various forms of psychotherapy, behavioral desensitization, exposure therapy and certain medications can assist in overcoming or coping with some phobias.

Still, many of us find a way to push through fears on our own.

My friend Bessie in Maryland overcame her fear of bridges (gephyrophobia) by driving back and forth over the nearby Chesapeake Bay Bridge 20 times. “It’s a very scary high, long bridge,” she says, “but now I love driving over it, calmly gazing down at the glistening sea below me.”

The most common dread, fear of public speaking (glossophobia), tormented my brother from childhood, and he quaked at having to say his name in class during roll call. But avoiding any form of public speaking is nearly impossible and certainly not a way to get ahead in life. After my brother took a job with a big technology firm, he became a member of a Toastmasters club that met in the company cafeteria at lunchtime to develop and practice public speaking skills.

That was 40 years ago. Since then he’s held elective office, served on boards and headed an international foundation, all of it involving public speaking. “I still have shaky moments,” he says, “but I learned breathing and relaxation tricks that put me in a zone where I’m comfortable speaking in public.”

I knew I’d finally vanquished my fear of dogs one rainy morning in 1966 when I was wrangling two Irish wolfhounds, a bullmastiff, a collie and a pregnant Labrador through Central Park and fell face first in a mud puddle with Gleeson, one of the wolfhounds, mounted on my back — and I kept my grip on all the leashes! Having overcome my fear of canines, I celebrated my victory by adopting an abandoned Great Dane I named Ondine, and gave up my job as a professional dog walker.

After Ondine, I adopted two Lhasa apsos. These days I live with my boyfriend and his two noisy, galumphing Airedales. The thing is, my boyfriend is a rare breed of human with NO phobias. Lucky me. I can leave him to deal with mice (musophobia), spiders (arachnophobia) and anything that goes bump in the darkness of night (nyctophobia).

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