Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Uncontrolled control.

Maybe it's just human hubris, but we haven't really tamed nature.  We think we have.  Maybe we have it under some sort of control, most of the time, but tamed?  Not really.  It doesn't take long for the checks and balances to become unchecked and unbalanced.  Just ask New Orleans. 

So I was running tonight and a dog came at me; one of those low-slung, muscly ones with the big head (I'm not good with breeds).  Ears back, head down, wide-eyed, tail out, fur up, teeth bared, snarling and making that back-of-the-throat growl that makes you look around for the nearest pointy implement or tall tree. I guess it's an evolutionary thing: five million years ago when an Australopithicine heard that growl it was climb or become dinner (or a very elegant fossil) and as we are, by definition, descended from the survivors, those who climbed and were not dinner, we have retained that instinct.

As any runner knows, the owner was right behind, not quite behind enough to have any of your actual control over the beast but behind enough to utter the familiar refrain, you know the one

"Don't worry, he's quite friendly".

I had the presence of mind to reply 

"Of course; it was the snarl and teeth that gave it away"

and she looked at me like I'd grown an extra head.  The dog, on whose leash she was now standing, looked at me like I was dinner.  I looked at the dog like our Australopithicine ancestors may have done, disguised fear mainly, I held my keys out in front of me (I'd found a pointy implement if not a tall tree) and said 

"if he comes for me again, I'll protect myself"

and, of course, she gave me that extra head look again.  Protect himself?  For why?  Everyone knows that Muffy is a quiet and gentle dog, really very friendly, loves to be scratched and (as the old joke goes) loves children.

As I continued my run, with great trepidation as I was now turning my back to, and behaving like prey towards, a highly mutated top carnivore which had already marked me down as a light snack, I suddenly thought of the reply I should have given.

"Madam" I should have said. "if you do not have the common sense to understand, or find out about, the basic dog psychology or animal behaviour patterns of your dog, you should not be allowed to have a dog".

"Dogs are pack animals.  Your dog loves you because you are the alpha-male in his pack.  He looks up to you as the leader.  He fawns at you because he is essentially sacred of you, and when you scold him he puts his tail between his legs and whimpers because deep down, some animal part of his brain thinks you might quite literally rip out his throat."

"To your dog anyone not in his pack, viz, you and him, is an outsider and either trying to steal his food, his territory or somehow threaten his pack.  Like any good pack animal, he'll respond violently to such threats.  Either that or you're food, and lets face it, you respond the same way.  No prey animal ever lay down willingly to be eaten, you have to chase the buggers down and bite them repeatedly until they get the message."     

"Of course, not all dogs behave like this all of the time.  Most of the dogs I encounter as a runner or in real life either don't give a shit that I'm there or regard me with a certain contempt once they realise I do not have any food on me.   But deep down in their DNA there's a wolf and sometimes other dogs, runners, children, sheep, whatever can turn into a threat or food.  So your well behaved, cute house-pet can quite literally turn into a monster given the right cues.  We don't always get those cues and can't always predict when Muffy's going to go all postal. If you don't understand that, you probably shouldn't have a dog. and you certainly shouldn't let it off it's leash on the Halifax Commons (local bylaws notwithstanding)."

"I know the theory of what do do in these situations.  Don't run: you look like prey.  Puff yourself up: you'll look bigger and more threatening.  Don't smile: it bares your teeth and looks like a threat-display.  Oh, and look for a pointy implement or a tall tree.  If it's (apparently) incumbent on me to know enough of the psychology of your dog so I don't get attacked, the least you can do is understand the psychology of your dog so when it tries to attack me you realize that "don't worry, he's quite friendly" isn't really going to cut it!"

That's what I should have said.  

Ah, hindsight.  Still, maybe I'll print it out, laminate it and hand it out to dog-owners the next time I'm running from their little darlings.  Who knows, maybe it'll give us something to talk about while I wait for someone to put the sutures in my calf and they're shaking their heads in disbelief saying "but he's such a good dog at home"



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