“Your dog should be on a leash.”
I hate those words. My heart warms watching my dog’s joy when she runs off leash in the nearby forest and swims in the creek. Her black body prances on white paws in between stops to sniff trees, grass and whatever else catches her fancy while we walk. To avoid bothering anyone, I choose lesser used trails and walk at unusual times. When people appear, I try to determine from a distance if they indicate a fear of dogs or have a dog that might not play well. If they do, I’ll put her on a leash until they pass.
Occasionally, however, I’m not paying attention or I misjudge. In over ten years of walking on my favorite trail at least once a week with off leash dogs, I have only twice before been reprimanded. The other morning it happened for the third time.
Up ahead on the trail, I saw three colorfully dressed people standing at a junction, discussing which direction to go. As we approached, Bea, my shy, medium-size lab mix, knew we were turning, so she ran through the woods to quickly go around them.
I wasn’t concerned about her running ahead because the group greeted me and seemed relaxed. I thought I too would pass them and we’d be on our way. Instead, though, they began walking down the trail in her direction. My eye caught the man in front’s thick wooden walking stick with a beautifully carved knob on top rising and falling with each step. Oh God. Bea immediately ran back into the woods about fifteen feet away, barked once, and then waited for them to pass.
“I’m sorry. She’s friendly, but the stick scared her.”
And that’s when one of the women made the remark about her being off leash.
“She hasn’t come anywhere close to you. She’s just nervous because you walked toward her with a big stick.”
“It doesn’t matter. If she was on a leash it wouldn’t have happened.”
They kept walking and I yelled, “Bea, come!”
Damn one time a year hikers. Why can’t they stay off my trail? This wouldn’t have happened if they had let me pass. I was clearly about to turn in that direction and walking faster than them. Bea had already passed them, why not let me go too?
As much as I wanted to escape at this point, Bea had no interest in coming to pissed off Jen. Understandable. If I could, I’d probably avoid me too. Except it pissed me off more. Now they think my dog doesn’t come. Fuck Bea, just come!
Waves of shame swept over my body. Not only do they think I’m an inconsiderate dog owner who has no respect for the rules, now they think I don’t even have my dog under control. I tried all my tricks; nothing worked. Damn dog!
Bea stayed nearby the entire time, but kept herself at a safe distance. I knew I had to sit, calm myself, and wait. Clearly, she had a better sense of what I needed than I did.
According to Kristin Neff in her book, Self-Compassion, “what often drives this type of emotional overreaction is the attempt to avoid seeing ourselves as flawed or bad.” Sitting there, I knew the woman had the legal high ground. Those of us who like walking our dogs off leash, the vast majority of this trail’s users, use it because of how hidden and little used it is. Regardless, it’s not a dog park and the leash rule still applied.
More than that, I have friends that fear dogs. They love Bea for her gentleness. If Bea was a stranger to them, though, and they saw her off leash, they’d feel nervous. So I knew that this woman had probably been scared when Bea barked. Instead of just apologizing, leashing Bea, and getting past them, however, I lashed out.
My amygdala, or as I like to refer to it, my four-year old self, heard her calling me “bad” and reacted to this perceived threat. I wanted this woman to acknowledge that neither me nor my dog were bad. My weapon was to blame her in my mind and then accuse her of overreacting.
Except, as I calmed down, I could only feel disappointed by my behavior. My mind spiraled into all the ways I hated when other people behaved the same way.
Neff explains that “our self-concept is multi-faceted, and we can identify with different parts of ourselves at any one time. When we judge and attack ourselves, we are taking the role of both the criticizer and the criticized. By taking the perspective of the one holding the whip as well as the one quivering on the ground, we’re able to indulge in feelings of righteous indignation toward our own inadequacies. . . . ‘At least I’m smart enough to see how stupid that comment I just made was.’”
And I am smart; I am especially clever at finding all the ways I’ve just screwed up and demonstrated that I’m not good. Neff, however, counsels self-kindness in these moments. Only when we accept ourselves and our limitations with more kindness and compassion, can we be honest about how we’ve harmed others. As much as I consider myself a considerate rule follower, I, like everyone else, regularly break rules. And sometimes, no matter how mindful I try to be while doing it, it’ll be a problem for someone. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me human. The more I can accept that, the less need I feel to defend myself. I can then react as the considerate, compassionate person I am.
Eventually, I managed to console myself, despite not loving my reaction. I calmed down enough for Bea to approach me and I put her back on the leash. As we drew near to the group down the trail, I considered apologizing. I decided, however, that it was enough that Bea was on a leash. They politely moved to the side as we passed. As soon as they were out of sight, though, I let her off again.
Also published on Medium.