Thy Neighbor’s Dog

Well, the only really interesting thing that happened to me in the past week is that I was bitten by a dog. Seriously. But first, a little background. Well, the only really interesting thing that happened to me in the past week is that I was bitten by a dog. Seriously. But first, a little background.

We have lived eighteen years or so in this neighborhood – a suburb called Pinedale Farms – a typical, upper-middle-class area with big houses, well-tended lawns, and winding, tree-lined streets. I love to walk. So over the years I’ve been taking morning and evening walks around these tree-lined blocks, listening to music on my cell phone, waving to neighbors and chatting occasionally with those I meet.

From time to time, for a change of scenery, I wander down a lane off one of my nearby streets. The photo at the top of this blog is a shot of this lane and, as you can see, instead of a typical suburban, house-lined street, the feel as soon as you step into this way is like another world – a little touch of country amid suburban sprawl.

Now notice I said “step into” this lane. Actually, I should have said “step around into,” because there always has been a bit of a barrier between the end of my street and this little country road. But once beyond the barrier, you pass older, modest houses as the lane winds around to a nearby state highway. And over the years, as I’ve ambled down this way, I’ve noticed a couple of weather-worn signs posted announcing “private road.” However, since there is also a day care/nursery school that uses this road as access, I have always figured that the lane is not really “private.”

The inhabitants of the houses along the road are also somewhat colorful. Some have raised chickens in their yard, some have rusty cars sitting on lawns, and one house in particular – the first one on the right as I would start down this road – had a small dog that would menace me as I walked. But this last week, when I stepped around the barrier and headed out for my walk, two or three dogs came racing down the long dirt driveway from that same house – off to the right of the first photo. And the largest of these dogs – a white, perhaps German shepherd mix – attacked me and bit my leg through my jeans. The elderly owner of the dogs called them off and I yelled up the driveway that his dog had bitten me. I hurried back home to staunch the flow of blood and clean and bandage the wound.

To make a long story short (as they say), the next day friends urged me to call the police and have an officer come over to my house to get the particulars of the incident and make sure that that particular dog had had rabies shots, etc. When the officer arrived, and after we’d chatted, he wanted to know the address of the dog owner. I didn’t know it, so we walked the block over to the lane so I could point out the house. The second photo at the bottom of this blog shows what we found.

Obviously the dog owners were expecting trouble. Overnight they had erected the total barrier with signs that you see in the photo. And as we were standing on our side of the barrier, the officer said, “Here they come.” Down the driveway from the house came two pickup trucks with the white dog in question sitting proudly in the second one. After I pointed out the biter, the officer informed them that he’d be right over there to see the dog’s papers. About fifteen minutes later, he called me and said that the dog was clear – with all the required papers. So other than a resulting wound infection and a course of heavy-duty antibiotics, I have survived that attack quite well. I will never walk down that lane again!

Well, what is my deeper point here in retelling this unpleasant event? When I told this story to someone a few days after it happened, she noted that dogs actually are in large part a reflection of their owners. Dogs can become vicious if they are mistreated or if they are taught to attack strangers on sight. But then, come to think of it, I suppose that is true of us all, is it not?

The third and last photo below shows the cover of a book titled Confessions of a Christian Humanist (2006) by my friend, John deGruchy – the South African theologian I’ve spoken of in recent blogs posted here. The book is a wonderful analysis of the meaning of being human – in all our complexity – including our intrinsic connection with the whole of creation. On page 46 of his work, John has the following to say:

They also tell us … that our relationship to the animal world is much closer than was previously thought, and we share 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees. Some animals – dolphins for example – also appear more intelligent than humans in certain respects. This may be corroborated by the fact that few animals died in the Asian Tsunami, suggesting a ‘sixth sense’ that warned them of danger, prompting them to move speedily to higher ground.

Here’s my point. Although dogs are of a different order than chimpanzees and dolphins, nevertheless we share a common “animalness” arising from evolutionary roots. We all have within us the capacity to be aggressive and to lash out when frightened or enraged. But as the song lyric in South Pacific has it, “you have to be carefully taught.”

Now I don’t want to drag our current political scene into this. But it just occurred to me that in the June issue of The Atlantic, fellow psychologist Dan McAdams (an expert in personality theory) describes Donald Trump (based on extensive interviews with those who know him well) as both high in extroversion and very low in agreeableness – two fairly universal personality traits that all of us have to one degree or another. McAdams suggests that anger may be the operative motive fueling Trump’s extroversion. He says, “Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.” (p. 80)

Circling back to dogs, I actually like dogs a lot – I always had one as a child. But I don’t like mean dogs. And then again, I don’t like mean people either. And since we are all in this together – all part of God’s creation and sharing a planet with more in common than at first blush might seem the case – let us all look within and keep a tight leash on anger lest it erupt to wound in more ways than one.