I have a friend who says you’re either a dog person or you’re not. Given only those two options, then I would have to say I’m not a dog person.

I didn’t grow up with a pet dog. I never learned to love a dog like it was a part of the family. So I haven’t cultivated that obsession about them that many dog-lovers seem to have. For example, I absolutely do not understand how someone can passively watch a movie in which people drop like flies, but throw a fit the moment the dog is killed.

This question of whether or not one is a “dog person” is not easily avoided either. There are enough dog-lovers, especially on Shelter Island, that we non-dog-lovers (as distinguished from dog-haters–yes, there is a middle ground) encounter dogs quite frequently. At friends’ houses where the first minute of any visit consists of barking and jumping and “Down, Fido!” On the telephone with dog owners who must occasionally interrupt the conversation to discipline their dogs. And on walks. Especially on walks, at least for me.

I encounter one particular dog every day on my early evening walk. He–funny, I always assume dogs are male, perhaps because of their loudness and aggression–can’t seem to understand that I am not a threat. His barking and growling is quite frightening. He’s not leashed, so I suspect there is an electronic fence that keeps him from attacking me. I wonder about that “fence.” What happens when there is a power outage? That’s a scary thought. Or does it run on batteries? That’s even scarier. Don’t laugh, I’ve been attacked before by a neighbor’s dog (not this one). Bit a hole clean through the sleeve of my leather coat.

And despite that experience, I don’t dislike dogs. A few years ago I house-sat for my buddy while he and his family were away, and I got along great with their dog. But then, to the dog, I became an insider. Maybe that’s what bothers me the most, the us and them attitude of dogs. You’re either in my pack or you’re an enemy. I could draw some parallels between dogs and governments, but I’ll let that slide for now.

So, anyway, every day on my walk I would pass by this dog that wanted to eat me. At first the barking was a little stressful, so I would sometimes take a different route. But I decided to give the dog a chance. I thought maybe after a couple dozen passes, he’d warm up to me. He didn’t. I started to wonder if it was the breed of dog that made him so single-minded and mean. What kind of dog is he, you ask? Gun to my head, I’d guess he was a black lab, but the truth is, not being a dog person, I only know two breeds. The second is poodle, and he’s definitely not a poodle.

After a few months of this daily ritual, it became clear to me that this dog was not going to change his behavior. But that gave me an idea. I’m the more evolved life form, right? (The dog-lovers are saying no.) Maybe it was my job to change my behavior. Maybe it was my job simply to accept this dog for who he was, to learn something from him.

Okay, what might I learn from this dog? He is consistent, and there is value in consistency. What else? Be who you are. This dog definitely embraces his dogness, I’ll give him that. Or maybe it was a lesson in self-esteem, an example of how much I want to be liked.

But for me, learning is the easy part. What about acceptance? Could I really accept this dog for who he was? Understanding is the first step to acceptance, so I decided to try to understand the dog’s behavior. Why was he barking at me so consistently? He didn’t bark at every car that drove past, at every bird that flew over, or at every deer that happened by. Clearly, he could distinguish between things that were a threat and weren’t a threat.

One day, a funny thing happened. He didn’t bark at me as I walked past, and I thought, finally. But the next day he barked just as loudly as ever. Dumb dog, I said to myself, but then I noticed a car in the driveway. Maybe he was barking to protect someone. When no one was home, there was no need to bark. But this pattern didn’t last.

Then, a few weeks ago, the dog suddenly stopped barking at me entirely. Why? Was it simply that he needed all that time to get comfortable with me? Or did my efforts to understand him change how he perceived me? In the words of Wayne Dyer, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

But even if my efforts didn’t change him, they changed me. The truth is, in spite of myself, I’ve begun to become quite fond of this dog. Dog-lovers would probably say that I’m finally warming up to his inherent canine charm. But I think there’s a greater lesson here. Through understanding we can bridge differences that at first may seem irreconcilable.

For those of you who are waiting for an answer to the mystery of why he barked at me and why he didn’t, I’m sorry. I still don’t know. Any story I tell myself is just a guess. He might have been protecting his owners. He might have been calling out to me, “Hey, buddy! Bust me out of here and take me to the beach with you!” Or he might have been trying to understand me, too.

Even though I don’t have the answer, I am encouraged by my new understanding of dogs. That gives me hope that I might someday actually begin to understand dog-lovers.

©2005 Curtis G. Schmitt

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