“…the dhole, the red hunting-dog of the Dekkan, was moving to kill, and the Pack knew well that even the tiger will surrender a new kill to the dhole. They drive straight through the Jungle, and what they meet they pull down and tear to pieces.”
“The Second Jungle Book”—Kipling
Yes, my timid younger self had some natural fear of strange dogs, but my imagination was able to take that and run with it when I read some of my favorite books.
When I was writing the “Oh no! Disaster!” scenes in my new book, Valeria and the Enemy of Time, I knew one of them had to include a ferocious wild dog. And why not make that two ferocious wild dogs? Because a pack of something is usually more disastrous than one. Before I let myself go in writing that scene, I had to think about the relationships people have with their dogs. Pet dogs can be a beloved family member, a hard-working companion, a child’s playmate, or a search and rescue lifesaver. Dogs have probably the closest, most personal relationship to our species than any other animal I can think of. But wild, feral dogs are another matter. If we don’t count mosquitos, next to snakes, dogs are the most deadly animals on earth, for causing human deaths. I am handily adding in rabies as a dog-death factor.
I am still uneasy around unfamiliar dogs. But when I was Valeria’s age, around 12, I was pretty fearful. I don’t remember being especially afraid of dogs when I was a lot younger. We always had dogs around the place, and the neighbors all had dogs, and nobody kept them fenced in. When my younger sister was in around the 4th grade, she got a fairly severe dog bite on her forearm. Severe to me meant that she needed stitches. Afterwards, we all went over the event in detail, back and forth, trying to figure it out, why it happened. Our dog was having an altercation with another dog, and my sister stepped between them just as our own dog lunged at the other one, and her arm got slashed by our dog’s teeth. That was the way we finally described it. I don’t remember that making me anxious around dogs, but somehow, I grew scared of them.
We used to walk to our little country school from a neighborhood lane. At the end of the lane, just across the road from the school was a ramshackle house on the corner. When I was in the 8th grade, those people got a dog. It would bark and run out at people. It terrified me. I would hang around either before or after crossing the road, just waiting for my sisters or maybe some of the neighbor kids to meander out to walk home so that I wouldn’t be alone. If someone was walking with me, I could just be cool, make sure that they were walking on the side that the dog would come running out, barking at us. If I killed time there, pretending to check the mailbox again, milling around, but no one came along to escort me home, then I had to go solo. I’d try to be quiet, but no use. My heart leaped in my chest as I’d see the black shape darting out from behind the house and tearing out after me. Sometimes I ran, but it was no use. “Seal,” the little black puppy ran faster than I could. I imagined his sharp little puppy teeth nipping my ankles, and was very afraid.
Fears and phobias don’t necessarily have anything to do with reality. I believe I have a more realistic sense of canine danger now, but I can still access that childhood imagination of the slashing teeth, rabies, the Red Dog pulling me down and tearing me apart, if ever I need it.