Nine years ago, I was viciously attacked by my neighbor’s dog. Weeks before, we moved into our new “old” house, a two story colonial foursquare with a lovely green lawn. Our dream house was a reality! What a heady time, a glowing time of new romance full of promise and discovery! Full of baby boy arrival euphoria! Elliot would experience his first birthday in our new place. We were elated at these blessings. Eager begin our second chance at life as a family on this long and winding road near a lake with hiking trails.
But this house needed work and was a hard to sell property. It sat empty for two years before we arrived. The dogs that lived behind and next to our yard must have thought that our new yard, although fenced, belonged to them. Seeing someone in this space was an invasion of their territory. Every day, indeed for the last nine years, all the dogs around us charge the fence and harass us with barking. Especially annoying are the little yappers who are incessant with their rasping sharp tone. On the day of my attack, my new neighbors invited me over for a visit. As I opened the gate I was greeted by threatening barks. As I walked past a particular dog (there were at least six) I was greeted by nine bites and the terrifying experinece of being surrounded by a barking pack of viciousness. The owner of the dog did nothing to stop the attack.
In that moment I prepared myself for the likely outcome that all the dogs would join in and rip my flesh until there was nothing left of me but parts.
And that my neighbor would watch it all passively.
One of the most difficult spiritual challenges in my life is to love my neighbor as myself.
Years passed and my fear of dogs remained. Even the sound of a barking dog behind a fence rattled my nerves. I visibly winced on walks with my husband when we encountered families walking their dogs on the trails. Often, people would allow their dogs to go unleashed in the woods, though this violated the city ordinance. I resented people who believed they were too important, that their dogs were too important, to obey the law.
Then, something in my heart changed. We began homeschooling our son midway through first grade. He was very lonely and feeling cut off from his classmates and friends. We needed just a little more life and activity in this house. I found a dog listed by the Surry county animal rescue group. And by the grace of God this dog was as terrified of people as I was of dogs.
We’ve enjoyed this shy, tenderhearted Border Collie mix in our lives for four years. Ozzie is gentle, loyal, patient and full of love. He remembers people he cares about. After not seeing my mom for six months, he jumped with joy to be reunited with her. Ozzie rarely jumps and especially not for people. Maybe for toast or a banana, but never for people.
He also remembers and loves the baby boy who lives next door (on the other side of our house). When baby Turner was a newborn riding in his mother’s baby carrier, Ozzie would reach up to sniff and make gentle contact with those perfect little toes. He surprised the mother with his curiosity. Without the baby, he would never approach her.
This month, Turner celebrated his first birthday and began walking. While my son and I were in our neighbor’s yard visiting, we left Ozzie at home, who watched us from behind the fence. As soon as Turner spotted Ozzie through the fence, he pointed in his direction and made his best effort to get the dog’s attention. I called Ozzie over. He came close to the fence and sat down, pushing his fur through the wire, so that Turner could pet him. And being one, Turner put out his index finger and poked Ozzie, curious to discover how deep was this softness. Ozzie turned his head at being poked and Turner giggled with surprise and mischief. I demonstrated a soft pet with flat fingers, then Turner poked Ozzie again. Ozzie did not move from his spot, but turned his head toward the baby every time he got jabbed. Turner giggled and bounced at this new game, full of baby joy.
No doubt Ozzie enjoyed this, otherwise he would have walked away.
I wish this could have been my family’s experience with our other neighbors and their dogs. But it was not to be. I might not have appreciated this moment so deeply had it been different then. Something in this shared moment between a baby and my dog restored the balance and allowed me to reclaim my old self, the one who loved dogs, the one who trusts.