Fears are not rational. But growing up, in my mind, it made perfect sense that a dog could bite me, and moreover, most likely would, given the chance.
My fear was born of repeated backyard encounters with a mauling, snarling dog. We shared the yard with tenants who lived in the other side of our grandfather’s house. This meant our sandpit was contested territory, my dolls were easy targets, and my young mind was easily imprinted with the image of slavering jaws crushing heads. Dolls’ heads, true, but that had implications.
Sure, it wasn’t me who had to contend with the bitzer terrier going for my dangling doodle-my brother seemed to emerge from that encounter mentally, and thankfully physically, intact. For me, bearing witness to the dolls’ destruction and the attack on the tiny penis, the outcome proved more traumatic. Perhaps being that year older, my mind could seize the sense of threat?
What it meant for me was that my space in the world became curtailed. Boundaries bound me close to home, rather than roving freely through the suburban streets. I rode my bike in packs, but would not walk alone. I rode with an eye behind me, visualising the dog which would appear at any moment, going either for my ankles or my throat. There was a feeling, a black shadow, just over my shoulder. It made my childhood wanderings urgent, rather than meandering. It felt like my adventures were not quite my own.
In the gangs of my youth, I was the only girl. We played footy, climbed trees, made race tracks, read magazines, built clubhouses, dug tunnels, played cricket, made up pranks and revealed our bits in our friend’s backyard bungalow. But on the paths between our safe zones, I felt constantly at risk. I did not choose to walk the neighbourhood, or explore another street, because who knew if a free ranging dog might emerge from a driveway and rip my head off? I was aware of the limits to my freedom that this fear imposed, but what could I do? I had to stick close to others, not go it alone, not venture out to explore. To expose myself was unthinkable.
In the school yard, I was on constant alert for any dog that might breach the perimeters. At the sight of the lolloping family pet, which to me no doubt looked like a killer, I would either run at top speed, or collapse to the asphalt and wet my pants. Running of course, was a pretty bad option, as the dog would usually give chase. Confirming for me my worst imaginings: that I was indeed the target and that the dog could smell my fear. Once I ran so hard and locked myself in the toilets for so long that the class could not find me when lessons started. I was behind a cubicle door, sweating and shaking.
The thing about dogs smelling fear is true, apparently. That hardly helps. The fear surges upwards at the sight of the dog, the panic sets in at the thought of the fear, the heart-rate goes up in conjunction with the panic, the sweat seems to tingle outwards and I would just know: the dog can smell it on me, my fear.
Now I am older. Not a kid on a bike, peddling in terror from the black shadow over my shoulder. There really has been a black dog at times over the years. A sense of threat and urgency has never left me. It still seems to make some sense to me that threats to my self and safety are imminent. Many things that scare me I have kept beyond the boundaries, but now I’m looking to tear down some fences, even if the dogs can still smell the fear.
© Anna Sublet
I had a happy golden ending to add, with the golden lab that came into our lives:
Edited version appeared in The Guardian, 28/12/17