I have a dog. More precisely, I have a big, goofy dog. My big, goofy dog and I take walks together most afternoons. My big, goofy dog is not always goofy with other dogs. My husband and I believe his hostility towards other large dogs is simply a dominance thing. I’ve noticed, however, that his occasional negative reactions to other dogs has made me far more wary when I see them approach. And when they come running across the yard towards their electric and invisible enclosure, I do tend to startle and tense up. This is all fairly predictable and not that strange.
The next part is the part that I’ve really been thinking about. When I startle and tense up, my big, goofy dog becomes far more interested in the other dog, and not in a good way. He senses my upset and works to restore stability as quickly as possible, which in dog means to eradicate the threat by being more threatening. We have been fortunate to avoid any actual physical problems as a result of this extended interaction, but it’s taken me awhile to come up with the best way to dissuade my very large friend from acting as my own personal and overly protective body guard. The change in our process had everything to do with my acknowledging that my buddy was reacting to my perceived fear.
The new approach goes like this: when other large dogs approach, even if I startle, which I do (I’m a notorious startler – it’s a little embarrassing), I try very quickly to move through the surprise into a gentle reassurance to my pal that everything is okay. “It’s alright Baxter. Everything is okay. Come on pal, we’re alright.” I use a gentle tone, like I would with a child. I give him a couple of pets, I keep moving as if everything is okay, because it is. His response to this shift is miraculous. He trots along beside me, usually giving a few backward glances to make sure I’m right, that I’m not just using my dumb human senses to assess the situation. What previously occasionally became an unpleasant interaction between large dogs or a tug of war between dog and myself has now become a startle and a reassurance and a pleasant walk, all because I recognized that the behavior was a reaction, and that the reaction was based on an understanding that was fundamentally flawed. If I am scared, he protects me. If I’m okay, he’s okay.
And in this way my big, goofy pal lays bare the way that my thoughts and feelings create actions that do not serve me. When I am afraid, the most ancient part of me seeks only to protect the core, to maintain the status quo, to ensure stability even if that stability is undesirable. That reptile inside will do anything to keep me from danger. It will shame me, it will assure me that a new path is full of insurmountable obstacles, it will even try to convince me that I don’t actually want to change anything, that the status quo IS enough. That reptile inside turns on me, turns on others as I act out in frustration, encourages me to argue vehemently using all the “shoulds” I care to. There is no softening. There is no peace. There is no listening to my heart or anyone else for that matter. When the lizard senses fear, the lizard reacts, like a big (occasionally goofy) overprotective dog. When I calm myself, the lizard also relaxes, eases her grip, paving the way for a softer heart, listening ears, and an open mind.
I think about this all the time on my walks with my pal now. I remind myself that when I am afraid, afraid of the changes I’m making in my life, afraid of failure, afraid of the anger I sense in so many people, I take a deep breath and tell that rascally reptile that “We’re alright. It’s okay. This moment is really okay. Thank you for protecting me. I am safe.” And then maybe with that softer heart, listening ears, and open mind, I can decide what to do next.