I love dogs. For my 12th birthday, I got what I had always wanted: a Beagle! I covered many miles of New Hampshire forest with that sweet, energetic hound. We were inseparable, except when I went for training runs. On one of those runs, I learned about the darker side of dogs. Rounding a bend, I came upon a woman walking an unleashed Rottweiler.
“Don’t worry!” she said. “Razor’s friendly.”
Razor barked at me. I slowed to a walk. The pooch continued to growl. I crossed to the opposite side of the road. Just when I thought I was going to get past without incident, friendly Razor chomped on my butt.
“Ow!” I yelled.
“Come on boy!” the woman called as she turned up her driveway, oblivious or careless about the teeth marks on my glute.
A few months later, while on another favorite loop, a Springer Spaniel abandoned a lawn to snarl at me. It lunged. I jumped back. It snapped. I jagged left, then right. The dog closed the distance and launched itself at my face. I countered with a right hook that sent it spinning into the ditch.
The following year, a bigger Rottweiler ran at me. I picked up a cantaloupe-sized rock from the roadside, held it aloft, and hollered out a warning. That snarling, slavering dog and I stood in a stalemate on the blacktop until its owner came outside. The man needed to kick Bruiser in the ribs with Chippewa boots to make him back down.
“Don’t yell at my dog!” he admonished me.
I earned a sterner warning from a man whose dog nipped my heel while running beside the Blackwater River. Not long after, in a forest near Durham, New Hampshire, I spotted an Old English Sheepdog just ahead on the trail. “The Shaggy Dog,” I thought with delight, in reference to the 80s movie. That one bit my right hip.
These incidents and more have conditioned me to get angry at unleashed, territorial dogs and their owners. I feel skeptical when someone assures me his dog is friendly. I become livid when a dog threatens me or my wife. So last week, while hiking the Moab escarpment, I was alarmed when an unleashed German Shepherd barked, raised its hackles, and ran at me.
Only after seriously diving into a mindfulness practice five months ago did I realize this conditioned response to unfriendly dogs was a source of suffering. Incidents with irresponsible dog owners would throw me into a fit of enmity. I dared not speak with them for fear of blowing up. I bellowed at a friend whose dog nipped me.
However, some contemplation and mindfulness has reminded me that conditioning isn’t a perfect predictor. Every encounter is a new encounter. The future is a mystery, even if I have learned to expect fear and anger. In his book “The Road Home,” Ethan Nichtern writes, “From the standpoint of sensory and bodily experience, emotions are just a sixth type of sense perception, containing their own information and beauty that don’t need to be either indulged or rejected.” Even though the threat of injury is real, I had become inclined to blow wary dogs way out of proportion emotionally and socially. Nobody ought to be injured by the careless handling of a dog, but serious dog attacks are rare.
So while that German Shepherd ran at me, I was able to pause in the gap between feeling alarmed and taking action. As it bore down, ignoring his owner’s hollered commands, I chose to be alert but not angry.
The big dog barked again and dubiously skirted around me.
I didn’t appreciate being frightened, yet there was no damage. Its owner apologized.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “He’s still learning to obey.”
“Keep at it,” I replied with a smile. “And have a nice afternoon.”
What could have riled me for half the day ended up being a kind encounter with a fellow dog lover. This stood as a potent example of how becoming mindful of instinctive reactions equipped me to handle new situations with poise rather than panic. I’m not recommending passivism; rather, I’m recommending bringing good into the world instead of allowing baser instincts or conditioning to snowball into additional destruction. Emotions need not be tyrants of my life. By cultivating a wiser relationship with emotions, I can restrain myself from shooting off that testy email, judging someone who may be having a bad day, or becoming outraged at a friend’s provocative Facebook post.
Here’s my challenge: feel alarmed. Be embarrassed. Dive into sadness. Acknowledge anger. But after noticing those powerful feelings, do not react! Don’t click. Don’t run away. Don’t lash out. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
We can handle these emotional squalls.
When next I find my instincts provoked, whether on the trail or at work, I will take a moment to deeply reflect on the emotion. In that gap between feeling and reacting, I aim to make a decision rooted in reason, humility and compassion.
Indeed, the metaphor of leashing my dog seems remarkably apt!
Daniel McNeil is the program director of Grand Area Mentoring.