A walk yesterday reminded me of my pre-Gwynn dog walking experiences. Gwynn is normally very quiet (a fact for which I’m very grateful), and his barking usually consists of a high-pitched whiney bark at other dogs in the park when they won’t play with him, or when he can’t catch them. He’s a big wuss. Yesterday, he brought out his deep manly bark, jumping and darting backwards on the leash, half playful, half thoroughly spooked, leaving me 100% baffled. What was he barking at? A friendly couple I ran into in front of their house, a few blocks from my home. He runs into plenty of people who don’t have dogs with them but still want to pet his rock-star hair-do, and get a good close look at his pink nose while showering him with compliments. This time, however, instead of grinning his big goofy grin, wagging his big goofy tail and soaking in all the attention, he twisted and jumped backwards to avoid being touched, and he slapped his paws on the ground, bum up, tail flagging, like he would if he was encouraging another dog to play. And he barked his deep bark, the one I rarely ever hear, the one that makes him sound grown-up and far more intimidating than you’d expect of a dog with his goofy-cotton-ball appearance. He acted, simultaneously, like he was terrified of the people, and like he was trying to play with them as though they were dogs. I’m pretty sure it must have been because they smelled like other dogs(their own), and it confused him that they didn’t have the dogs with them, because I wasn’t getting any creepy vibes from these people. And I’m a very paranoid person – my imagination brings up the worst possible situation I can think up on a regular basis. So, while I think Gwynn’s spidey senses have not yet been refined enough to entirely trust, yesterday’s encounter brought to mind my walks with Sadie, the sweet blonde mystery-lab.
I walked her twice a week (and still do), pretty much rain or shine, and learned A LOT about dogs, and about my own commitment to my future dog’s well-being. If you’ve never had a dog before, and are unsure about your commitment (to walking your new dog in all kinds of weather, to dealing with poop-pickup, to the less fun aspects of dog ownership)… I highly recommend taking care of other peoples dogs. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
I wanted to talk about walking Sadie in the winter. It’s dark when I get home from work and darker when I drop her off at the end of her walk. Her owners live about 10 minutes away from an access to the creek-valley, which is a great place to go for letting a dog run around a bit off-leash. Great, except that, in the winter, it is pretty dark, very isolated, and kind of ominous. It isn’t the kind of place I would walk through alone once it starts getting dark, but being with a dog makes all the difference.
Having a dog with you is like having a security blanket. As sweet and gentle as your dog might be, people around you don’t know that, unless they’re people you already know. Rather like carrying a realistic looking fake gun, you’re holding the leash of a dog that may or may not be fierce and protective. But without the likelihood of someone calling the cops because there’s a nutcase with a gun walking through the neighbourhood.
Walking with a dog is also kind of like having a divining-rod that tells you whether a person is a good or bad-egg. Now, I know I had some pretty disapproving words for Red, and his smarmy “My dog is a good judge of character” comment, but it is true that dogs have an entirely different perspective than people do.
Walking through the dark creek valley with Sadie off-leash and ghosting quietly through the woods, most of the people I ran into were dog people. The rest of them were just walking through, having, for whatever reason, chosen to take the dark and ominous route to their destination. Sadie never reacted with anything but cheerful exuberance when we crossed paths with a dog person. These are people we’ve met before, with dogs she’s played with before, and nothing to be worried about. With most of the people without dogs, Sadie was cautious (because they were strangers, and she is a fairly timid dog), but not concerned. They just weren’t all that interesting, since they didn’t have treats or dogs with them. And then there were the very very few people she picked out as ‘the enemy’. This quiet, sweet natured puppy would circle those people, hackles up. She didn’t growl or bark, she didn’t snap at them, but I can only imagine how creepy it would be to have this ghostly dog circling you until you were past her owner (owner is what I’d look like to them, since I don’t wear a neon sign saying “just walking, don’t own”).
I have an over-active imagination when it comes to things going wrong. I get uncomfortable if a person appears to be following me, especially when it’s dark out, or if they’re doing anything I’d consider unusual. I have, at my most paranoid, fumbled with my keys while walking up a random driveway, and I have taken some very convoluted paths in order to establish whether or not someone is following me. Fine, sure, you took the same left as me, but will you take the next left as well? And the one after that? You just circled a block with me – AAARGH! STALKER!!! Picture that with me walking and someone in a car, and you can see why my attempt at early morning jogging in high school was abandoned so quickly.
So, when this dog I’ve already known for over a year changes from friendly puppy to silent warning, I get a bit uncomfortable. And when she circles a person in that way, clearly warning them to stay away – “Yeah, keep moving, buddy!” – I don’t say anything. I don’t call out, “don’t worry, she’s friendly”, or “Hi, how’s it going?”, or “Nice night”. I don’t say anything that might make Sadie stop doing this thing that she’s doing, because my imagination has grabbed hold of the reins, paranoia ramped to 10, and I don’t want to find out why Sadie doesn’t like this person. The world isn’t always a friendly place, and so I let them walk past me in silence, and keep a sharp eye out in the woods for the remainder of my time on the trail.
This is just a glimpse into my crazy-paranoid side. The part of my mind that assumes that people really are out to get me. Before the criticism about judging people based on their appearances starts, let me just say… it isn’t like the only people I get this vibe from are tough-looking or hulking. Sadie did react poorly to an intimidating biker-looking gentleman while on leash once, but he said himself that his dog (not present) was vicious, which kind of says something about the person who trained it. But the people we run into in the creek valley are a wide assortment, and the people she has given the circle-treatment to (very few people), wouldn’t fall into the ‘typical movie bad-guy’ category. And she has, happily, sat leaning against some pretty intimidating looking guys while they coo over her and scratch behind her ears.
It’s entirely possible that I’m nuts for reading so much into a dog’s opinion of a person, but it is comforting to know that I’m the only one in that kind of situation who knows that I’m just carrying a realistic looking water gun.
What are your thoughts about this? Can dogs tell more about a person and their intentions than we can? Or am I just a nut-bar who lets my dog get away with circling an innocent stranger in the dark woods?