“(S)he wouldn’t hurt anyone …”

Source Unknown

Your dog is beautiful. You love them. They adore you. And … you think your dog is harmless.  I know you believe this to the core of your soul … and … I would agree that your dog is completely harmless to YOU.  But this is not necessarily true when it comes to OTHERS.  Your dog has a primal instinct to protect YOU.  I completely respect that, but many dog owners aren’t aware of the challenge this innate predilection creates.

And … you may defend by saying that your dog has never ever harmed anyone.  And, I’m guessing by that you mean that they have never bitten anyone. But … ‘biting’ is not the only way your pooch can do ‘harm’.  In fact, the upset/distress/harm experienced by another because of your dog may not be at all obvious to you.  Allow me to explain …

I love to be outdoors … walking, running … metabolizing the stresses of my day with the bright sunshine warming my heart and cleansing my soul.  For me, it is not only the physical exercise, but a walk or a run is so good for my emotional and mental health. I am a counsellor (generalist practice) and EMDR therapist (trauma work) … so … I spend the bulk of my work days immersed in the pain and wounding within other people’s worlds. I love my profession. In fact, I wouldn’t want do anything else …. but … given my passionate commitment to this heart work, it’s imperative for me to find ways to release any stress and/or compassion fatigue that has accumulated in my own system.

Source Unknown

And so … my time enjoying the out of doors is such a precious piece of my own mental health.  And it remains entirely therapeutic for me … unless or until … I come upon unleashed or loose dogs. It’s not that I don’t like dogs. I do. It’s just that, unfortunately, I have come to fear the ones I am often confronted with outdoors.

My fear first began a few years ago when I was out for a morning run and crossed paths with a family … complete with stroller, preschool children and a beautiful large dog.  He was leashed as I approached them and attempted to pass by on the path. I’m guessing the canine misinterpreted the bounce in my step as an invitation to play because he unexpectedly lunged towards me and caught my upper arm between his incisors. Yes … he was tall enough to reach my bicep.

I stopped in mid stride when I felt the pain.  They just kept on walking.  I looked at the torn flesh on my arm and called out to them “Your dog just bit me.” They continued walking away, not even pausing … never mind turning back to assess the situation nor offer apology.  The person holding the leash casually called back over his shoulder … “He was just playing.” “But” I responded (pleading out helplessly to the back of their heads)“he drew blood.”

They never even looked back.  They were certain their dog meant no harm, so they completely disregarded the incident. I was aghast. And injured. And left abandoned on the path.  I stood there in utter disbelief until I could no longer see their silhouettes in the distance.

My mind was racing to comprehend what had just happened! Your dog bites a passerby and you dismiss the incident and injury as an intent to play?  What does your dismissal of the harm caused by your dog teach your young impressionable children about compassion and accountability and responsibility? I wondered how they were justifying their dismissal, disregard, ignorance of the event as they merrily continued to enjoy their walk outdoors. Correct me if I am wrong, but I’m deliberately calling it ‘ignorance’ because for them to choose to ‘ignore’ the injury is entirely ‘ignorant’ of the norms of human decency that we purport to uphold in our culture.

I still had a fair distance to go and the blood was trickling down my arm.  The local hospital was on my route home … so I stopped in to get a bandage.  The nurse was kind and compassionate … her empathy was comforting.  She cleaned the wound and warned me that if the dog’s shots were not up to date I could be at risk. She strongly recommended that I report the dog.

I pondered it all for the whole day … knowing that if I reported it, the authorities would NOT take my unprovoked injuries lightly.  We live in a relatively small town, so when my husband got home that evening, he was able to track down the dog’s owner and called him to ensure the dog’s vaccinations were current. Fortunately, they were. When my husband pressed the owner for an explanation of his conduct … he offered an apology. For me, however, it was a little too late to seem sincere. I wish I could say that the flowers he had delivered the next day made it any better. But they did not. They felt more like a ‘thank you’ for not reporting his expensive, exotic breed of dog, rather than a genuine effort to make amends for harm done.

One would think this would mark the end of the event. It was over, right?  Wrong.

Little did I know … but this was just the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life. I had no idea that the emotional arousal of this experience would become registered as a traumatic event within my limbic system.  And, that the hyper-arousal and unprocessed alarm of the event could be and would be triggered and reactivated, again and again, into the future … when and if I was accosted by dogs in the great outdoors.

And, since that day … my bestie and I have been chased and charged and cornered by dogs on several occasions!  I can tell you that one feels entirely vulnerable when a dog bounds unexpectedly across and down a street and won’t let you pass by … circling your ankles with bared teeth and vicious snarls. This has happened more than once.  When the dog owner in one of these scenarios finally captured his dog … he offered no apology.  Rather, he dismissed the whole incident by contending ‘he’s just a little dog’.  YES.  And may I say. the little ones seem to have something to prove. And regardless of their stature … they still bite … hard. 

And then, of course, there are the big ‘friendly’ ones!  Like the one my hubby and I encountered this morning … he enthusiastically lumbered towards us … both uninvited and uncontrolled by the owner.  I hid behind my husband.  The owner said he was sorry to have scared me but defended that “He’s just a big goof ball … he wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Sure. Easy to say … until it happens. Upon recognizing that I wasn’t comforted by his nonchalance, he looked down at his dog and said: “Come on … let’s leave the old lady alone.” Huh??  It might not have felt so offensive if I had not so clearly heard ‘old biddy’ in his disparaging tone. Perhaps he got defensive because we all knew he had to drive right past the off leash dog park to get to the area where we were all walking.  Grrrr.

But seriously …’old’ lady??  Well … okay, maybe true.

How about ‘scared’ lady?  Most certainly truer.

How about ‘innocent’ lady?  For sure. Absolutely. 

Maybe I should just be a ‘grateful’ lady? Clearly, its better to be insulted by the owner than bitten by their dog.  Obviously … there was no need for any extra compassion, because this dog owner saw no harm done.

On another occasion, a landscaper had his dog unleashed while he was working on a yard.  He was entirely unconcerned when his dog bounded towards us. I stopped in my tracks … distressed as the dog nosed towards my crotch.  I asked him to come and get his dog.  He  assured me that his dog wouldn’t hurt me. I was frozen … terrified to move. I actually pleaded with him to please come and get his dog. He smirked … apparently amused by my fear. I was reduced to grovelling for him to come get his dog away from me.  He snickered. Yes. I was terrified and was being mocked despite my outcries for help.  When did we devolve to the place where we think it is amusing to watch people suffer?

I completely lost it. I came entirely unglued.  My bestie’s eyes grew wider with deeper concern when I dropped the f-bomb. She had never before seen me in such a state of terror.  My fight/flight system had entirely taken over my system.  I was experiencing a full out trauma response. Yes.  Even though this dog never bit me … it was still a traumatic experience.  You see…. trauma isn’t something physical that happens ‘out there’ in the world somewhere … it’s something emotional that happens internally when we become hyper/hypo aroused and alarmed beyond our window of tolerance. And when old traumatic wounds get reactivated, we will find ourselves in fight, flight or freeze.

Source Unknown

It used to be that when I saw or heard a dog barking in a yard … or in a house … I could just calmly keep on walking or running. Not so any more. Now I experience a highly alarmed visceral response. I can feel the adrenalin and cortisol coursing through my veins. I can feel my blood pressure raise. Unfortunately, my flight/flight system is activated EVERY single time. And … although I am just one … I know that I am not the only one.

My bestie has also been bitten … more than once. One time when we were out for an evening stroll, a very large dog escaped the fenced yard while it’s owners were loading groceries into the house. This dog bolted … crossed the road … and then attacked us FROM BEHIND. My bestie sought medical treatment for the wound on her backside. The owners, on this occasion, expressed concern and regret. But as a result of this experience, even passing by a fenced dog doesn’t feel safe anymore to me. Especially if they are barking or growling. Even now, my heart starts pounding at the mere thought of it …!

And so … I share this for those of you who think there is no harm in unleashing your dog.  You can’t possibly know what is being triggered internally for others when they see that your dog is uncontrolled.  You have the luxury of being comfortable because … there is no chance that your dog will harm you.  I only wish I could feel so calm and relaxed. My body responds automatically.  It is not a conscious decision on my part. I cannot voluntarily turn off my internal alarm system.  And, research indicates that it typically takes at least 30 minutes for the stress chemicals to be metabolized … often longer. And so … I can end up feeling more stressed than when I headed outdoors with the intention to ‘de-stress’. Gah.

I am writing this blog as a call for compassion.  I hope you are hearing that your dog doesn’t have to bite someone to cause them distress and/or harm. Their trauma response may be triggered by the mere presence of your unleashed dog.  And, you would be none the wiser that your enjoyment of the outdoors was at the expense of another.

So … unless you are at an off leash park … please keep your dog controlled by their leash.  And, by that I also mean, please ensure you are strong and able enough to control your dog if you are in charge of their leash.  There are many occasions where leash holders would never be able to hold back a dog that gets aggravated or activated.  And, it is not at all uncommon for us to see dogs pulling their owners along the path.  In those situations, the leash is just an unreliable illusion of control that does nothing to calm my fears.

And finally … “thank you, thank you, thank you” … to all the dog owners who are mindful and considerate of the rest of us outdoors. “Thank you” to all the dog owners who shorten the leash when they come across others. “Thank you” to all the thoughtful dog owners who position themselves between their dogs and the passersby. And “thank you” to those who are kind enough to take their dogs off the path … or … simply halt with them … to visibly display that they have complete control of their canine. Your conscientious efforts to respect and acknowledge the comfort and safety of others is duly noticed, deeply respected … and … most gratefully appreciated!

May we all (young or old!) enjoy the outdoors without fear of emotional or physical harm … Karen




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