A deep-rooted fear of dogs

When I lived in India, during the rainy season, street dogs would seek refuge at the entrance of the building where my family lived in a flat. I had to walk past these dogs to go to school or work.  There was no way out since there was only one entrance and exit.  If there was just one dog and it was sleeping, I would try to tiptoe past it quietly.  However, if there were many active barking dogs, I would hightail it back to our flat and try to get a family member to accompany me past them.  My fear was so deep-rooted that even decades after moving out of that home – in fact, out of the country – I would still have nightmares where I had to go past dogs, and there was no one to accompany me.

Living in a town in California meant living among many dog lovers.  The likelihood of encountering dogs running loose is small, thanks to stricter leash laws in the US.  However, when visiting folks who owned dogs, I always asked if they could be restrained before entering their homes.  I hated inconveniencing people and their pets.  I did everything possible to avoid these encounters, thus restricting my social circle. This phobia was indeed a full-blown disability.

Taking the plunge

In 2022, my father, who lived with us, passed away. His departure left a gaping void in our lives. My 16-year-old, who adored her grandpa, was depressed. I wanted to do everything in my power to help her.  She had wanted a dog for many years.  My phobia was the reason she did not get one.  I decided that now was the time to take a deep breath and take the plunge.  A dear friend who knew me well encouraged the decision assuring me that everything would be fine. 

I started watching videos on Youtube about overcoming the fear of dogs.  Watching how people just like me got over their phobias gave me hope. 

I also watched videos of golden doodle puppies and how much fun their owners had with them.  I watched many such videos, almost trying to saturate my mind with all the cuteness and desensitizing myself from the fears of what the dogs could do to me.

Virtual reality dog life

I searched for mental health specialists who helped with conditions like mine.  I found a startup called Ovrcome based in Christchurch, New Zealand, that uses virtual reality home technology to help people overcome their fears and anxieties. I subscribed to their service and got a cool-looking VR headset.   Wearing that, I could place myself in situations with dogs at varying challenge levels. 

I talked to a mental health counselor who worked with me on breathing techniques to calm down.  A hypnotherapist used visualization to help me view the experience of being with my future pet as a fun and rewarding experience. 

Adopting from a shelter seemed right but too risky, given my mental state. As a family, we decided that our pet would come from a breeder who could guarantee that we would get a calm dog that wouldn’t freak me out.  

Romeo comes home

When we were expecting Romeo’s arrival, my stomach was in knots, and at the same time, I could not wait to see the delight on my daughter’s face.  We stood in our driveway to welcome Romeo.  My daughter took a timid little puppy into her arms, filled with love. Her friends came over to be part of the occasion.  I tentatively touched Romeo’s back.  I could not imagine how I was going to get used to him.  

Romeo slept in his crate that night. The next day, being a school day, my daughter headed off to school. I set up Romeo’s pen in the yard.  I sat right outside the pen to give him company.  I put dog food in the pen and cleaned poop by moving the pen to isolate and bag the feces. I did my level best to avoid any form of physical contact.  I wore thick pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect myself from getting bit.  I even ordered special gloves from Amazon to help me when I had to touch Romeo. 

At this point, though, my heart began to sink.  I thought I had made a colossal mistake.  There was no way I would be able to get over my fear.  I began to mentally kick myself for overestimating my ability to overcome a lifelong fear. 

Learning to love Romeo

Then, friends who owned dogs began to visit.  They brought little presents for Romeo and gifted me with their time and advice.  I learned lots of tips and tricks from all of them.  One friend taught me to hold Romeo’s face in my palms and massage his ears.  Romeo loved the massage, and this maneuver ensured he would not open his mouth and scare me.  Another friend taught me how to pick him up. Yet another brought me a booklet on training him and a typical timetable for a day in a puppy’s life.  They told me how they felt about their pet dogs and how the dogs felt toward them.  Hearing first-hand descriptions of the strong bonds between humans and dogs was eye-opening.  The pieces began falling into place.  Given my nervousness, I still could not appreciate the whole picture, but I knew I had to keep moving forward.  There was no going back on the decision. 

We set up vet and dog trainer appointments. My husband and daughter were busy, so taking Romeo to the vet fell on me.  For the first visit, I set up the door of Romeo’s crate against the pen gate and tried to get Romeo to climb in.  However, I had to give him an encouraging nudge with my hands.  That was scary, but finally, it was fait accompli.  I handed over his crate to the vet’s assistant at the vet’s. That is also when I realized I was part of this new community of dog owners.  I got to speak with so many awesome people who were willing to give a stranger encouraging words.`

I did not realize that just as I was adjusting to Romeo, Romeo was adjusting to us.  He was watching each of us and getting to know us.  He showered his love on my daughter by licking her like the world’s tastiest food.  With me, he maintained a respectful distance. He would come to sit beside me with a paw lightly touching me but never tried to lick me or jump on me. That was the turning point.  I realized that this was a two-way street.  I used to think being around a dog was akin to being with a dangerous animal that looked at you as prey. On the contrary, Romeo was sensitive and intelligent and, to some extent, could understand human emotions. I started feeling safe.  I knew I still had much learning ahead of me.  But, the difference was that now I felt up for the challenge. 

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