#39: Getting to the heart of it

As I’m writing this, we’re dealing with the terminal illness of our dog, Zoe. The older two of you will remember her in some way or another, while the youngest of you will probably not, except for the photos and stories we have of her. I’ll write a post more directly dealing with that next but while thinking about all the Zoe stories we have, one has always given me something to think about.

Whenever we had Zoe in our front yard, we’d be somewhat lax about tying her up or leashing her  at every moment. Especially when we were just getting home or just leaving, or just running out to the mailbox. The problem with that is that our front yard is right next to a sidewalk that leads back to the walking paths in our neighborhood. So it’s not unusual for a dog owner to walk on by with their dog. And since the sidewalk goes down a little hill, if you’re in our front yard a dog can seem to pop out of nowhere almost anytime.

And while Zoe has never ever shown any signs of aggression toward people – she’s the perfect dog to introduce to children and skittish adults, even my parents love her  – she does bark at other dogs. Especially those that get close to our property. She’s actually never been aggressive to other dogs – at the dog park, she spends most of her time hanging out under the bench – but we typically tie her up so she doesn’t provoke another dog’s response.

I wasn’t there the day of the incident, but one day a neighbor approached me while walking back from the bus stop one morning to tell me that Zoe “charged” her. She explained that our nanny had the dog unleashed in our front yard, and she walked by and that’s when Zoe “attacked”. I thanked her for telling me this (even though I was wondering if she had the right dog), but when I checked with our nanny it turned out that Zoe did bark at the dog (who has one of those Elizabethan collars on, it had just gotten spayed) but that was it. Zoe was even still on our property, apparently.  So I chalked it up to randomness and a misunderstanding and that was it.

Then one day my nanny told me that this neighbor accosted her – even cursing her out – because she had Zoe unleashed again.  From a block or two away (and where we live, that’s about 75-100 yards.) This neighbor also told her that she’d be complaining to the authorities. Sure enough, I got a warning letter from the county a couple of days later.

Now, we were in the wrong. Totally. Dogs need to be leashed, and our nanny didn’t fully appreciate that’s actually against the law.  No excuses there.  I was incredulous that anyone would fear Zoe, but I understood my neighbor’s viewpoint (she had never met Zoe before otherwise she’d realize Zoe is not to be feared). From her impression,  Zoe was aggressive to her, so she reacted accordingly. I just made sure our nanny knew to keep her leashed at all times.

But later – after this incident – I’d run across the neighbor (with and without Zoe) and try to make conversation. She would literally ignore me – walk right on by – or mutter under her breath. One time I specifically tried to meet her eyes and said a loud, “Good morning,” only to be met with a death stare and no response. Your mama – even while out with you girls – got the same response. Naked hostility.

It was maddening, until I realized that she was doing what many dogs do. It’s understood that certain dogs will bite  – not out of malice, but in fear. The fear response – left unchecked – can turn into escalating aggression and hostility. And that’s what this neighbor was doing – she was fearful, but it came out as hostility. Way after the initial incident, going on years now. Engaging her constructively hasn’t worked since then, since we’re not just dealing with the initial fear, but the antipathy that has built up around it.

I’m sure she’s a lovely person otherwise.

I’m reminded of a callus I had on my index finger for almost 10 years.  There was something dark embedded in it, but the callus had formed and I learned to deal with it. One day I injured my finger and the callus was torn, and it turned out I had a bit of some debris that had been in my finger. After removing that, the callus disappeared. Completely, no sign of it ever having had existed. But to remove it, I didn’t have to fix the callus – I had to fix the thing that caused it.

It’s an important lesson, because you’ll encounter people who act in ways that seem counter to the situation you’re in. Or they appear to have an an aggression or hostility that seems unwarranted. The animosity that they are exhibiting might be the result of a deeper primal scar, not just what you are seeing on the surface.

And it probably has nothing to do with you.

What I am not saying you should condone the actions of these people. I’m also not saying it’s your job to figure out their internal organization and what their particular bugaboos are. Set your boundaries appropriately and don’t let them use their negative energy to knock you off balance. But perhaps knowing that you’re not just dealing with a person, you’re actually dealing with a person and the past they are bringing with them might be enough to so you can muster some compassion for them.