“He growls, but really,” she paused sympathetically glancing down at her pet, “he’s just scared,” the woman explained as she struggled to hold the dog while fumbling for the leash conveniently draped over her shoulder.   I’d stopped after passing her friend who was quicker getting control of a yellow lab, who had also been off leash.  I felt how ridiculous her response was, as if growling and aggression was acceptable if labeled fear. And, what about mine? The little hot pink canister in my hand caught her eye.  “Pepper spray in case a dog off leash gives me trouble,” I explained.  Her eyes revealed her surprise, but I then got the sheepish version of, “I know” when I brought up that dogs are supposed to be leashed in the park.  

This was not the first time I’d met owners with untethered dogs at the park.  It happens regularly.  Once, a large, standard size white poodle came charging up from a side trail.  It circled me, barking.  “Call your dog,” I yelled out to an invisible human, hoping he/she was within ear shot.  She was, and whistled.  I cried.  I talked to her through the underbrush from a distance and told her I’d been terrified.  She apologized, which many owners do not.  I appreciated the gesture. 

Another time, a large, soaking wet pooch greeted me, emerging from the fishy lake.  Over-friendly was his offense, as he proceeded to put his front paws on my shoulders, giving me a kiss.  It was early on the trail and there I was, full of mud on a chilly spring morning, rendered speechless by the sudden public display of affection.  I can smile now.

It’s not only a human issue.  I witnessed a scuffle between two dogs.  One leashed, the other, not.  It took a few minutes of creative thinking for the owners to detangle them.  I watched from a distance.

Our departed pups, 2016.

Our departed pups, 2016.

When our two little dachshunds were still with us, we had numerous incidents meeting dogs off leash.  It was especially worrisome as they got older and were losing their sight. “Dog off leash,” the first one to notice would say.  We’d each reach down and scoop up the pup in our charge and hoist them as high as we had to, to keep them out of reach.  ‘Jumpers’ always caused us the most distress. We shook our heads when the owner would say, “our dog wouldn’t hurt your little dogs.”  Our pint-sized Pogo would nip anyone he didn’t like the minute they turned around.   

Dogs also get lost or run away.  I felt a lump in my throat the day I saw the picture with a plea to watch for Daisy posted on a tree at the trail head.  She’d disappeared the previous day. I could imagine the heart-broken owners hiking around and around the park, calling her name, to no avail. I was no more fortunate.

For a time, I naively took it on like a one-woman mission.  Informing, I thought, couldn’t hurt.  That’s when I learned other versions of “I know,” including one man who followed those two words with “And, I don’t care,” in a whisper, right into my ear, as we passed shoulder to shoulder on the trail.  The threat in his voice caused me to rethink the whole situation. My next maneuver was to accentuate the positive.   I began thanking the owners with their doggies trotting along happily on their leashes.  Taking time to admire the cuteness. That felt much better.  

After each of these encounters, I would obsess.   Anger would follow the fear, (not unlike the dog, truth be told)  then the desire to scold, rehearsing what I should have said to make them understand.  “I love dogs, but I shouldn’t have to worry about defending myself against the wrong dog off leash in the park,” I would practice.  Direct, truthful responses it seemed, to such an obvious breach of common courtesy. I struggled to get to the bottom of my disturbance, feeling some confusion, tinged with embarrassment.  “Am I just holier than thou, high and mighty, a self-righteous you-know-what?” I would ask myself.    

Then, the black lab appeared at the top of a knoll.  When I looked up, he was perfectly still, had taken on a wide stance, was watching me, walking toward him.  I stopped.  We stared. No owner in sight as time stood still.  The man finally arrived, breaking the spell.  My heart was pounding and tears were running down my face.  “He won’t hurt you,” he said quickly to fill the silence. I, once again, was speechless, as the tingling of terror flowed down from over my shoulders.   My very young self, suddenly remembered she was bitten by a ‘big, black, dog’.  She has a scar right next to her eye to prove it!

Understanding and self-compassion flowed.  It did not, however, handle the real threat I felt. 

“Carry pepper spray!” the inner voice of wisdom shouted.  I’d thought of it before and suddenly knew, it was a simple action I could take, putting a little back-up in my pocket, that would reduce my anxiety.  Just in case.  I know spritzing a dog would not be easy for me if a threat ever arose again.  It wouldn’t be the dog’s fault.  But perhaps just being seen carrying it could create some understanding, illuminate the level of discomfort caused by an unknown animal suddenly appearing on the trail without it’s human.  And, in the case of a threatening owner, the little canister I carry?  Good for 10 shots.