This is Diesel, our neighbors’ dog. It’s not a very good picture of him, but trust me when I say he’s a rambunctious, handsome-looking pup.
Our neighbors brought him home late last year, and I really haven’t had an opportunity to see him up close yet. But I know we eventually will be pals just like I was with Max, their last dog. I met Max in the spring of 2019 shortly after Cindy and I moved into our current home. He was up there in years and hobbled more than he walked, but he’d always come over to say hello when I called his name. His health steadily declined over the next year, and I was genuinely sad when he passed away last summer.
We own two cats, Walter and Donny, and I’m very fond of them, but I am a dog lover. My family had three different dogs from the time I was a baby until my sophomore year of college. One of the hardest things for me during the pandemic has been the inability to get up close and personal with almost every dog I see when I’m out and about. I’d greet some with a wave or a pat on the head and a “hey, buddy!” If I could tell the dog was very friendly, I would ask the owner its name and start a very animated, one-sided conversation with it (“Hi, Prince! Nice to meet ya! How ya doin’? Good? Ya doin’ good? Got a kiss for me? Awww … thanks for the kisses!”). I have hours of work staring me in the face, or I’m in a nice groove on my morning run? Hey, it can wait – I’m talking to Prince here!
I sincerely believe that dogs truly are humans’ best buddies. I mean, who doesn’t love them? My son, Nolan.
Nolan has Autism and is nonverbal, but I’m certain he would tell me if he could speak that Canis lupus familiaris surely must translate to “The Devil’s Spawn.” He is absolutely, positively, unequivocally terrified of anything that barks and has four legs, fur, and a tail. Granted, he’s not a fan of animals in general – he tolerates Walter and Donny – but dogs are Public Enemy Number One. It doesn’t matter if the dog is large or small. It doesn’t matter if it’s a puppy or a geriatric. It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Poodle, Yorkie, Labrador, or Saint Bernard. It doesn’t matter if its name is Spot, Rover, Marvin, Princess, or Fluffy McSweetness.
Nolan wants nothing to do with it – period.
Phobias are very real. I still go full Indiana Jones when I think about being near snakes even though I stood next to and touched a python my middle school art teacher had as a pet and brought to class one day. There are a few species of snakes in our little corner of Wisconsin, including the Timber Rattlesnake. I know the bluffs and the forests are their habitat. I know that I have absolutely no reason ever to set foot in either place the rest of my days on earth if I so choose. And I do so choose.
But what do you do when the thing that frightens you is seemingly everywhere? What do you do when your first experience facing it is literally being eyeball-to-eyeball with something loud and unpredictable, not knowing if this strange creature is just being annoying or intends to have you as a midday snack?
Unfortunately, this was Nolan’s first real introduction to dogs when he either was three or four years old. Cindy and I took him for a ride in his wagon either to the park that was a few blocks away or just around our old neighborhood. As we were returning home, I noticed the Puggle our next-door neighbors had just adopted was standing in the front yard of their house. Suddenly, she bolted toward us in the street, began circling the wagon and barking at Nolan. The kid started sobbing. One of our neighbors came outside almost immediately, brought the dog back into her yard and apologized for what had happened.
But the damage had been done. I don’t think Nolan has ever forgotten that encounter.
I’ve seen the panic in his eyes when a dog enters a room, as was the case when he was in elementary school and I was volunteering on a day someone brought in a therapy dog. I’ve felt his fear by the way he tugged on my arm and pulled me to the other side of PetSmart a couple years ago when he and Cindy and I had to stop for cat food and a dog started barking at the checkout line. I’ve seen him freeze in parks even when dogs are 30 feet away.
Oh, we tried to help Nolan overcome his fear. The local Humane Society has a wonderful pet therapy program in which volunteers are able to bring their trained dogs to both public and private places. We gave the program a shot in 2016 when Nolan was in fifth grade. The mother of one of his classmates owned a therapy dog, and she began bringing him to our house. Depending on the day, sometimes Nolan would allow the dog to get within a few feet of him. But the mother had outside commitments that ended the visits after a couple months. Another woman brought her dog to our house a few times in 2017, but Nolan spent most of the time in another room.
And so here we are in 2021 with our son still very much in favor of social distancing from Rover, and us living in a neighborhood where sometimes the number of people walking their dogs past our house is greater than the number of vehicles driving by.
We’re seeing the first hint of spring in the Upper Midwest, which hopefully means Nolan and I can start walking again on a regular basis, be it around the neighborhood or to the nearby middle school tennis courts. As much as I try to look for dogs that are blocks away and plan an escape route by crossing the street or turning down a side street, sometimes we have nowhere to go. In one instance last summer, Nolan began pulling me off the sidewalk onto a homeowner’s boulevard and eventually into the street when a dog got a little too close. No amount of comforting or assuring him that I won’t let anything hurt him can help when that happens.
And as far as Diesel is concerned, he’s already been in our yard at least once, and I’m sure he will again because he’s just a puppy and, as our neighbors told me, he’s not a great listener. Still, I can tell he’s going to be a good dog. I wish Cindy and I could convince Nolan that not every dog is out to hurt him, and that most of them are perfectly fine.
Somehow, I just don’t think we ever will.