As I round the tree-lined curve of the regional park gravel road leading to the tennis courts, I see the three Labrador-retriever-German-shepherd-type dogs, off-leash, scampering about the road. If I knew more about dogs, I could identify the breed. Alas, not so. Big dogs—that’s all that matters. Their human (owner? dog-sitter? partial owner, partial dog-sitter?) saunters nearby. This walk is likely to end badly. I slow down, and try not to cringe. After all, I want the aura to be positive, no matter my natural mistrust of dogs.
The owner notices me, maybe even senses my reticence. He stops, and summons the dogs like I might encourage a dawdling child. I stare in utter disbelief as the dogs respond at once, and hover near him, still not leashed. They don’t growl, or bark, or whine. He is still, and they, too, are quiet beside him. I walk by, undisturbed.
“Your dogs are sure well-behaved,” I comment as I pass.
“I got lucky,” he says.
”I doubt that,” I call back. Such discipline is not an accident.
I continue, impressed. And grateful. I have a love-hate relationship with dogs. They bark at me while I walk, snip at my heels, get in my way, and growl as I pass. I try to be respectful to a strange dog, as I would be toward a child who doesn’t know me. I don’t want to impose myself on anyone. You would think deference would be rewarded. Not. Dogs have never warmed to me, and I’ve been okay with that, despite the social stigma that seems to accompany a dislike of dogs.
Sammie has changed that. My son and daughter-in-law’s dog endeared himself to me from the get-go. He seldom barks. He doesn’t jump on me. He doesn’t beg. He just sits at my feet, head cocked at eleven o’clock, and stares at me. Sometimes, he arrives with his ball in his mouth, and drops it at my feet if I don’t take the hint. I love this dog. I am me, and he is him, and we get along just fine.
The acid test came during Sammie’s first visit to our home on the occasion of my father’s 100th birthday celebration. A household of strange people in unfamiliar surroundings did not intimidate him at all. He wandered about the house, sniffing here and there, tail wagging, taking in the goings-on. Every once in a while, he would meander into the kitchen, sit and look up expectantly, but never bark or beg. Just wait. When I responded with talk rather than substance, he would snuffle about the floor, licking up my mishaps and waiting for more. Lucky for Sammie, I’m a notoriously messy cook. A comfortable relationship between me and a dog began that day.
During our last visit a few weeks ago, I asked Sammie to accompany me on a walk. As soon as I took out the leash, he bolted for the door. For me, walking with a dog required forethought. I experimented with the leash, anticipated how much tether I would allow Sammie, and stuffed a few plastic bags in my purse, just in case. When I was satisfied that I had considered all the angles, I fastened the leash on Sammie’s collar, double-checked my supplies, and locked the door. We were off. As I expected, Sammie handled the novice on the other end of the leash with aplomb. Ears at attention, nose often to the ground, he absorbed all the stimuli. A kilometre later, I settled onto a bench by the river, and took out my book. Sammie found some shade, and we lapped up the day in companiable silence. Ever the paragon of equanimity, he basked in the attention of passers-by, and was content to observe passing canines rather than interact with them. First excursion with a dog—check.
Responsible dog-owners like my son, his wife, and my park acquaintance create positive experiences with dogs for much-burned, twice-shy dog-shunners like me. Thanks to the consistency and calm they provide for their charges, recalcitrant sceptics can change. Next time I approach a dog, thanks in large part to Sammie, I may relax rather than cringe, keep a steady pace rather than slow down, communicate positive energy rather than fear. Any similar reversals of notions I observe in myself as I age delight me. They give me hope that long-held fears that have nagged me for decades can dissolve, making room for openness and new experiences.