When Paula* came to see me about her fear of dog muck she was worried it would seem trivial. She didn’t need to worry, and the way it was affecting her and her son’s life was far from trivial.
After giving birth to Connor* two years ago, Paula had become very aware of possible sources of danger. This wasn’t just about making sure he wouldn’t be in any physical danger. For Paula it was also about possible sources of contamination, or infection.
When Connor was eighteen months old she had read about toxocariasis, an infection caught from animal faeces. What had started then as awareness had developed over the last six months into a fear of dog muck that was now compelling her to behave in ways that she didn’t like.
Paula had started by being on the lookout for dog muck when she was out with Connor, and if she saw any then making sure that he played somewhere else. One day though he started using a stick to play with faeces that she hadn’t spotted. After that her controlling behaviour increased and increased. Now her fear of dog muck meant that she wouldn’t let Connor visit, or even play with, other children who had pet dogs and cats.
Working with Paula wasn’t a quick process. We started off by tackling her most recent fears about cat litter trays, and teaching her to manage her discomfort, and then to reduce it. Part of this was helping Paula learn to cope and to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
This was also about helping Paula to appreciate the difference between the impact of toxocariasis and its likelihood. One of the aspects of her fear of dog muck, as it is with most all phobias, is that whilst it had a rational basis Paula was extremely over-aware, and had developed unrealistic ideas about the actual risk.
Helping Paula with that meant helping her learn to deal with intrusive thoughts. This wasn’t about pushing them away, but about learning not to engage with them. It’s learning that you don’t have to respond to thoughts that you’re having, and that they aren’t necessarily valid or useful, that gives people the space they need.
At first this all felt artificial to Paula, and she wasn’t sure it would work for her. But as time went on she became better able to manage her intrusive thoughts, and to cope with situations. She’s still making progress, but she’s so happy that at last she’s able to let Connor play with his friends again.
* Paula and Connor’s real identities have been protected, and Paula is happy to share their story.
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