Just when I thought I had awkward social situations figured out, I experienced the dog park. A sprawling green space where frisbees fly and golden retrievers leap in the air like a dog food commercial – that’s what I was expecting. But no.
My first time there, our goldendoodle puppy cowered behind my legs as a stampede of drool-dangling, bohemian-ish, rescued pit-bull mixes bulldozed toward her. I, of course, freaked. I crouched down to protect my furry baby, as any good dog-mother should do. Right?
A tattooed biker dude wearing a Harley-Davidson hat with “Jesus” in all caps approached me.
“What you did just then,” he said, pointing his finger at me. Pointing! “Don’t do that again.”
“What?” Comforting my puppy?
“You’re reinforcing her fear.”
“Just let her alone. She’ll figure it out.”
Actually, he’d been right about that because the uber-eager pack of dogs were actually well-intended and harmless. But that’s not always the case. All it takes is for one dog to try to establish the power position and suddenly all of the wonderful aspects of the dog park – such as learning Pantene conditioner is the secret to a glossy coat – isn’t worth it.
Couldn’t we all do with less drama in our lives? Like the time two owners got into a shouting match over who was in the wrong when their dogs went after each other (the owner of the bandana-clad husky was wrong, in my opinion). Keep it G people – I’ve got kids with me. And I know what you might be thinking. If you can’t hang, don’t come. But that’s just wrong.
So the other day, after I figured I had the worst of the dog park behind me, I arrived with my kindergartner and fully-fledged goldendoodle, meeting and chatting up new friends while the dogs sniffed butts and ran in a pack.
Low and behold, a new duo appeared at the gate. A sweet silver lab and her happy owner. First timers. You could tell from the guarded look in their eyes when the pack greeted them.
Pretty much from the beginning of this brouhaha, a Great Dane Rottweiler mix (we’ll call him Cujo) had that sweet lab’s number. He would not let up either. We all watched, and cringed, and stood by stupidly while Cujo went after her. Frantic, the lab hid behind her owner. She even hid behind me at one point.
But Cujo’s owner didn’t get the message. She was too preoccupied with threatening her ex over the phone to notice. I’m guessing.
Cujo was relentless, and had the lab cornered, daring her to move and every time she tried to, he’d make a gurgling snarl that didn’t sound all that playful to me. But what did I know?
This happened three or four times until I said, “I think she’s had enough.” Really? I think?
And the silver lab’s owner quickly clicked on her leash, even though I’d meant for my comment to be a hint to Cujo’s owner who was now off the phone and watching. Just watching.
Dog bullying. That’s what I call it.
The next week I was back at the dog park and I saw a couple of the people who had been with me and had witnessed the event. The PAT bus driver and the mom with chic glasses shared my guilt.
I said, “You know, I can’t believe I just watched that happen and didn’t speak up.”
“Me too!” said the woman in glasses.
“It just wasn’t right.”
At least Cujo had left the park first. But still, we should have spoken up. And I thought to myself, what is wrong with our society that we still place the onus on the victim? “Speak up for yourself” we tell the kids, which is good, but we also need to expect the bystanders to speak up.
How can we expect our children to stand up for themselves when a group of grown adults can’t even do it at the dog park? Okay, so Cujo’s owner did seem unstable. And could probably take me out. But still.
The interesting part was that we all felt the same way. A group of us had been paralyzed with politeness, caring more, apparently, that we didn’t offend Cujo’s owner than we did to protect the lab. I know it doesn’t make sense. But that’s what happened.
And it happens all the time.
There is a difference between letting someone figure it out, and intervening to make a point. We know the difference. And as awkward as it is for us to speak up, just think how hard it is for our kids.
I wonder what would happen if instead of just watching, we were to stand up for at least one person today? And every day?
Let’s try it and see.