I’m scared of dogs. I have been since I can remember. People always ask if I was attacked as a child and sometimes, since discovering that saying yes makes the questioner more likely to keep dogs away from me, I wince and mutter something about an Alsatian at the playground. But the truth is that if there’d ever been an Alsatian at the playground, I’d have been on the other side of the park before it even saw me. My instincts around dogs make me think that humans aren’t as far from the world of mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers as we sometimes imagine. I can spot one from two fields away, and, given enough room for manoeuvre, can lurk behind trees and walls, maintaining distance and using wind-direction so it never notices me. It’s when you stop, I find, that they attack, or at least bark and growl, so I keep moving, angling away until I can clamber over a wall or, if need be, up a tree, until it’s gone away. My fear makes country walks difficult, which is a shame because I walk to stay sane and would love to be able to use the coast paths and green lanes without feeling like a deer trying to get past the lions.
The problem, of course, isn’t really dogs, but dog owners. Some do keep their animals on leads, or, bless them, put them on leads when approaching other people. Some are actually in control of their dogs, to the extent that the dog will come when the owner calls and stay by the owner until I’ve gone past (keep breathing, I mutter to myself, hands down, keep moving, because yes, I do know that dogs sense fear and react aggressively, so that your dog’s aggression is in some way my fault). But at least half the dog-owners round here have dogs running loose and let them approach people walking with young children, even if those people are pleading with them to keep the dog away. I wish, said my older son, we had a pet tiger.
We’d keep it on a lead in town, we thought. If people stepped into the road to avoid Tigger, we’d say oh, she won’t hurt you, she’s very friendly. We’d let her crap on the pavement and pretend we hadn’t noticed, and leave pools of tiger-pee trickling down the walls of other people’s houses, as if Cornwall were just a tigers’ toilet. She’d sniff at pushchairs, leaving trails of slime across the foot-muffs, and we’d say oh yes, Tigger loves babies. She’d bound up to toddlers and lick their heads from above, maybe growling a little, and we’d say don’t look so worried, she won’t hurt you. And once we got out of town, along the coast path round Pendennis Head, we’d let her off the lead, because tigers need to run about somewhere, burn off some energy. We’d know she doesn’t bite, so we’d let her get quite a long way ahead, out of our sight, and we’d trail the lead so that anyone coming up behind us knew we had an uncontrolled tiger that was likely to appear from behind a bush at any moment. Maybe sometimes there’d be a bit of roaring coming from the trees ahead, and we might, if we were feeling very public-spirited that day, interrupt our conversation to shout ‘be quiet, Tigger, you silly old thing.’ She’d run up to dogs, of course, because that’s what tigers do, and we’d smile at her friendly enthusiasm. She might snap a bit, or take the odd swipe, because she’s a bit bouncy, our tiger, but she’s an old softy really. If she did happen to take a little nip, it must be because the dog was provoking her somehow, maybe trembling or running away so she thinks it’s a game. Tigers do pick up on fear, you know. If your dog would stop being so hysterical, she wouldn’t act like that. No, Tigger, put it down now. Now! Tigger! Oh dear, she never will do what she’s told, silly girl. Tigger, drop it!