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I dragged Molly towards the bowling green. After enticing her out of the car I thought it would be easy. Not so. She was more terrified than me. On said bowling green around 12 dogs barked and tugged on their leashes, with their owners – all learners in the Dog Training delinquent’s class for which I had signed up. A delinquent’s class! I had not diagnosed Molly and I to that specific class – the trainer had, after a brief conversation on the phone.

“To start with, I want you to fasten your dog’s lead to the fence, tell them to sit, and then walk around and greet the other dogs and give them treats,” says the Dog Trainer. Are you kidding me, is what I am thinking! My heart races and I take a deep breath and approach the only dog I can face, a Labrador who looks at me with a frown as I offer a treat with shaking hands. I physically cannot approach the other dogs – Alsatians, Rottweilers, Boerboels, and a few unknown equally scaries. Molly is, of course, as highly strung as her owner and keeps wriggling out of her collar in terror.

“And what toys did you bring with you for Molly?” he asks. “Hmmm, I didn’t actually bring any,” said I sheepishly. (I battled every mountain of fear to get here, you moron, I was not thinking about toys, is what I am thinking!). “Well, what is her favourite toy then?” he asks. “Oh, she loves sticks,” I say, forgetting that balls are actually her favourite pastime. “Oh no no,” he says shaking his head annoyingly, “We don’t encourage sticks”. I had the wrong toys, the wrong treats (way too large apparently), the wrong collar (she kept slipping out of it), and the wrong attitude (I was here to fix my dog … and me). After a rather embarrassing 45 minutes of the class he, my unfeeling, annoying, dog-whispering trainer, calls us all into the middle of the green, tells us its ‘freeplay’ time and we can take our dogs off their leashes now.

My heart literally stopped for a second. A few minutes later I found myself in the middle of a bowling green with huge scarey dogs running around me in ‘free play’, wrestling and chasing each other around, falling, barking, growling … playing. I was one chemical explosion of adrenaline. And I am not exaggerating. I stood frozen, Molly running for a few seconds of confident freedom before coming back and hiding behind my legs as the larger dogs chased her, sometimes inducing yelps of panic and excitement. He whistled and there was a vague sense of calm as dogs were put back on their leashes. I paid for the lesson, said the most insincere thank you of my life, and speed walked to the car in case one of the delinquents wriggled off their leash and, for no reason, chased me and Molly for one last bite at our behinds.

We got home to the sanctuary of our cottage and both collapsed, traumatised to a similar degree. Mine self-inflicted, Molly’s inflicted upon her by me. We slept. And needless to say, I never went back, thinking of that morning with a sense of fear and embarrassment unparralled to issues that actually may warrant it.

One has to possess this level of irrational fear of dogs to understand the paralysing fear that one experiences in the presence of free-roaming dogs. I have fought, uncharacteristically, with dog owners while walking in the forest whose lack of understanding had led them to mistakenly think I enjoy their huge dog running up to me, licking its chops. I have walked kilometres out of my way to avoid passing a yard with a dog that looks like it may jump the fence. I have flagged down a stranger in a small holiday town to give me a lift past a scary looking dog who dared bark at me in defence of his territory. I, who love walking, have chosen to stay indoors in a beautiful area where I was unsure of the dogs in the neighbourhood. I have had a dog owner say to me, after his canine bit my elbow, “That is so strange; he has never done that to anyone before?” As a reporter for a local community paper, I have interviewed people in their homes, in the worst possible fashion, because there was a dog lying under the table. I have turned down dinner invitations because of fear of going into someone’s yard with two resident Boerboels.

I have wrestled a fear of dogs that seems out of proportion to the minor acts of terror that dogs have inflicted, or not, on me in my lifetime.  I cannot explain it, although I have a few thoughts that I will not bore you with as it is not the point of this story. Let it be understood, and it cannot be overstated – I was a woman with a crippling and embarrassing fear of dogs that I could not get over. For more than two decades!

And then came Molly. A Dalmatian cross border Collie who looked like she was dipped in black paint and then shaken rigorously. I was not looking for a dog, but this endearing furry black and white creature happened upon me, which is a story for another time. But suffice it to say – she changed my life. It took me six months to take her for a walk along the greenbelt that borders the property on which we both live. Six months. I, who love walking, and Molly, who takes the enjoyment of it to an altogether new level, took six months to get out the little gate at the bottom of the garden.

They say owners and dogs are often similar. I found this to be true. We were both eager, but terrified. When other dogs came along the path I would put her leash on and freeze up as they sauntered past disinterested. Molly would cringe and hide, or yelp as those who were interested tried to sniff her behind, as dogs do. After each walk I would collapse exhausted onto the couch, and Molly would follow suite at my feet. We were both keen, but afraid. I suspect her fear and nerves were amplified by mine. Without going into details, Molly and I walked a few times each week – sometimes with a friend in the beginning, slowly growing in confidence and socialisation. It gradually dawned on us that 99% of dogs on the greenbelt did not want to maul either of us. This was good news.

One year later I grin as an oversized Rottweiler lumbers up to Molly and me on one of our regular walks. Her name is Gina. She is the face of my fear, the picture that I would imagine when trying to visualise not being fearful of dogs. I reach the back of my hand to her as she stops at my feet and looks up at me with beautiful eyes. I see her soul, and it’s a gentle one. I speak to her in low tones and Molly growls at her as Gina snuggles up for a closer cuddle, as if to say “Don’t get too close to my owner.” I realise she has grown in confidence, as have I. And I smile as I remember thinking that Molly needed me when I first agreed to adopt her when she was six months old. The truth is not even that I needed her – although that is certainly valid. But we needed each other.

I will still check with dog owners before going into some gardens, and I am told this is wise, but my fear of dogs has dissolved. I have a wise person in my life who often reminds me to “Trust the process” and this has stood me in good stead as I have faced mountains in my life.  I realise that the process of this is generally how things change in my life – not in the one-hour quick fix as I ‘face my fear head on’ (as I had attempted in the delinquent doggy class a year before), but in the long, more gentle walk of change, facing one obstacle … and one dog, at a time.

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