Some time ago, Reggie and I were hanging out with Little Kitty on our stoop (Reggie loves the kitties) when around the corner came an affable golden retriever with her tail swishing like a windshield wiper. When she saw Reggie and Little Kitty, she came bounding over smiling that goofy golden retriever smile. Little Kitty ran under a car; she’s a very selective kitty.
Being on leash, it’s harder for Reggie to get away from the slobbery affection. He has always been afraid of big dogs which he defines as: any dog bigger than him. He also dislikes most puppies. They’re all jumpy and herky-jerky, and his goal in life is to find a warm sun spot to lie down. (Like dog, like person, I suppose.) He is a medium-size dog at forty-five pounds, so there are a fair number of dogs bigger than him, including the golden retriever in our midst.
Reggie began backing up and looking for an escape route. Not finding one he started growling to warn the golden away. Perhaps not the brightest dog ever, the golden moved closer, far ahead of her person. (I won’t get started on how much I hate the flexi-leashes.) My options to get Reggie out of that situation were now closed off. His tail went down and he gave sharp barks. It was a dog version of a panic attack. The golden’s person rolled her eyes. “God. She’s just being friendly. (To the dog) Come, Sasha. You don’t want to play with this mean dog anyway.”
I imagine parents deal with this kind of interaction regularly. I knew the golden was friendly and didn’t mean any harm, but it doesn’t matter what I think (or know) to be true. If Reggie is afraid, then he is afraid. Some people send their dogs (or children) into situations where they’re uncomfortable, a.k.a. the trial-by-fire method. If the dog or child can see firsthand that the Very Bad Thing didn’t happen, then, the theory goes, they’ll be less afraid. There were times I’d found this to be true in my own life. But much of our fear is the irrational kind—elevators, heights, airplanes, bigger dogs, (insert your bugaboo here) and common sense doesn’t play a role.
As Reggie’s guardian, it’s my job to protect him. I want him to trust that I’m not going to put him into a bad situation. Parents will surely relate to this feeling. Dogs (and very young children, I assume) learn through repetition. If a dog has what he determines to be a bad experience, he will put up defense mechanisms to protect himself from the Very Bad Thing. I decided I would do my best to operate within Reggie’s comfort zone.
Then doubt crept into my mind.
Reggie and I passed a woman walking her chocolate lab. I’d see them occasionally and always led Reggie away from them, despite that the lab appeared calm and easy-going.
“It’s okay if they meet,” the woman called to me.
I shook my head. “He’s afraid of bigger dogs.”
“How do you know?” She shrugged and walked away.
I was a little miffed by her ridiculous question. But I began to wonder if I was doing Reggie a disservice. Maybe by trying to protect him, I wasn’t giving him the opportunity to grow. I put him into a box, labeled it, and sealed it closed. Admittedly, it was easier for me. We had the rules of the game and I didn’t have to think about it. How many times had I done that to myself? How many times had someone done that to me?
A few weeks later we ran into them again. “Why don’t you let them meet?” There was an edge of frustration in her voice.
I felt myself bristling. Who was this woman to judge me? She hadn’t been there for all of the barking and the panting and the whining over these many months. Then Reggie took it upon himself. He wagged his tail a bit and headed toward them. She gently patted him on the head, mere inches away from her hefty 70-pound lab. Reggie sniffed the dog and returned to getting attention from the woman. I had tears in my eyes. I was so grateful to watch him put his fear behind him and sad that I very nearly could have missed it by not allowing him the opportunity to step outside the box.
I was so joyful that I didn’t mind what I knew what coming next. “See?” the woman said as she straightened and walked away.
“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” ― Orhan Pamuk
Have you ever felt stuck inside a box of your or someone else’s making?
Have a great weekend, everyone!
I still consider Reggie a DINOS (Dog in Need of Space). Not all dogs want to say “hi” to your dog and not all enjoy being petted by large or small humans. If you have a DINOS or even if you have a friendly golden retriever, check out Jessica’s fun and informative site. She says, “All dogs have a need for and a right to their own personal space. Some dogs have a stronger need for personal space then others.” Reggie gives Jessica and especially this post two paws up. 🙂