Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sometimes it is OK to Say No

Do you remember when you were a kid and you had that relative or friend of the family that your parents made you give a hug to?  You know the one I'm talking about.  The one who wreaked of perfume or cigars and would squeeze your cheeks.  Sometimes they'd ask you to pull their finger or make them their favorite cocktail.  I had several of these relatives that weren't my favorite, and no matter how prepared I thought I was for these interactions, there were times when nothing could have prepared me for what was about to come.  The story I'm about to share with you is absolutely mortifying, and I swear there is a point to it. 

One year my family decided to have Easter dinner out at a restaurant.  I don't remember what age I was exactly because I've tried to erase most of this day from my memory.  But I do remember that I was at that awkward stage where clothes fit differently and suddenly you have bumps and curves that you swear everyone can see.  When you're a girl who hates dresses, the idea of being in one for Easter is bad enough.  Being in one when you feel awkward about your body is even worse.  So when my father's aunt held me at an arm's length in the middle of a crowded restaurant after the obligatory kisses and hugs and announced loudly, "Oh my gosh, you're getting little bazooms!" you can imagine the horror that went through me.  In my mind everything stopped and panic set in as I waited for the reaction of strangers around me. 

Humiliation aside, almost every dog goes through a similar experience in their lifetime.  Anyone who walks a dog outside knows exactly what I'm talking about.  The moment where someone wants to greet your dog.  There are many people that have dogs who thrive on this attention.  But there are some dogs that have problems greeting others.  Maybe they lack manners and they jump on someone who is in their vicinity.  Maybe they do well once someone ignores them long enough, and settle down to give a sweet greeting.  And maybe the idea of someone staring at them and touching them freaks them out.  Think about something that makes you uncomfortable when you meet someone.  Maybe they stare at you too intently, or perhaps they step into your space too much or are too touchy-feely.  Not only do you have things that make you uncomfortable, your dogs do, too.  And while you have the ability to make excuses and leave a situation, most likely your dog doesn't.  If your dog is uncomfortable, or if a situation presents itself that you know will make your dog upset or uncomfortable, say no.  It really is OK! 

But surely everyone who asks to greet a dog should be able to, right?  Nope. 

I used to be the sort of dog owner who cared about what other people thought of me.  I was worried about the interactions that Abby had with people and how people would perceive us.  I worried that if Abby jumped and barked seeing another dog in the neighborhood that it was a reflection of me and my training.  I was worried that if Abby seemed fearful of children in the neighborhood that people would worry about her being in the neighborhood.  And I worried that if Abby didn't say hi to someone that wanted to say hi to her that it would leave them disappointed.  And inevitably I thought about these interactions and I realized that the opinions of others after these interactions didn't matter to me.  The only thing that mattered is whether or not Abby trusted me to keep her safe. 

Abby may not be able to turn to me and say in my language, "Hey, I'm uncomfortable in this situation," or "This person makes me nervous."  But with time I've come to know the things that make her nervous (children, things with wheels, more than one person wanting to greet her, more than one dog, etc.).  These are scenarios that will in most instances not be successful, and by successful I mean interactions where my dog seems relaxed and is soft in her posturing.  If I can avoid these scenarios I do.  Either we change our route or I try to give Abby enough space where she can tolerate those things.  But sometimes things happen and you're suddenly confronted by things out of your control. 

Last month I was out for a nice walk after work with Abby.  My husband was going to be a bit late getting home, and I decided to enjoy the first bit of nice weather with a longer walk.  The after work hour can sometimes be challenging as people let their dogs out, but often times those people are letting their dogs out on quick walks and so the trails in our development are virtually empty.  We went through one trail that opened out onto a side street, and we began to walk back.  I could see a child that appeared to be about 4-5 years old, and she was out with her mother playing on their lawn.  As soon as she saw me and Abby she screamed "Puppy!  Puppy!  Puppy!"  And with that she took off at a full run towards us as the mother yelled after her to stop.  Now there are a few things I know about my dog.  She's petrified of children, and she's petrified of people of any age running *at* her.  When you combine both of these things it was not going to be a successful interaction.  I instinctively turned with Abby and started to walk away.  The mother caught up to her daughter, picked her up, and apologized.  She then asked if her daughter could greet Abby, to which I said no. 

Did I feel guilty?  Did I feel like I let this child down?  Nope.  Not even the slightest.  Chances are that at some point there will be a dog she'll get to pet and that dog will be fine with her enthusiasm.  But if I had tried to let this exuberant child greet Abby and Abby was uncomfortable, would I have felt guilty?  Absolutely.  Because not only is it unfair to put Abby in this position, each interaction I force her to have further diminishes the faith that she has in me to take care of these situations that make her uncomfortable.  By taking charge of who she greets, I take away the anxiety over what is going to happen when she sees people or dogs coming towards her.  When I take that pressure off of her, her ability to handle escalating situations is greatly improved because she's not already amped up at the idea of whether she'll have to hi to someone.  She can simply trust that I'm going to take care of whatever is coming towards us. 

And for those wondering, the mother was not upset when I wouldn't let her daughter greet Abby and completely understood my reasons for making that choice. 

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