I had an interesting encounter several weeks ago. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who walks her dogs off the leash. They run up into people’s yards, but they pretty much stay with her. I have mixed feelings about dogs off leash because while I am a rule-follower, I also love to see dogs galavanting without a tether. My opinion is beside the point, however. Let me continue with the story.
We live in the neighborhoodiest neighborhood there is. We have sidewalks and cul-de-sacs and an HOA. We wave to each other as we walk and drive through the streets, even if we don’t know the person we are passing. The neighborhood is comprised of a couple of loops, so when I walk my dogs, I almost always see other people walking their dogs. We have a lovely park at the center of the neighborhood and I will sometimes go let my dogs chase frisbees and each other in the large field there.
So this woman (and sometimes her husband and neighbor and a 3rd dog) walks her dogs up our street. Our dogs are often out on our front porch where they have full view of the street. They bark at passing dogs, sometimes passionately. Occasionally, the noises will escalate until I fear injury or death is a possibility. This started happening about once a week or so. I would run out to the front porch to find my dogs growling and barking and snarling at this woman’s dogs who have run up into our side yard so they are barking back at my dogs from right below the porch. Forget that they are on my property...they are on my dog’s turf. Not cool.
So this has been happening for several months now. I always run out, bring my dogs in, grumbling under my breath (but loudly enough for the neighbors to *hopefully* hear about how rude it is to let your dogs harass other dogs on their own turf.) The five dogs fronting with each other sounds terrifying, so my adrenaline gets pumping and I’m all shaky and agitated.
Well, it might have gone on like this indefinitely. However, several weeks ago, the brawl sounds were even louder and more obnoxious. I ran outside and these dogs had run up our stairs and were barking face to face with my dogs at the gate to our front porch. I see snarls and spit flying from the muzzles and I start yelling at my dogs to come in, but they are drawn to the conflict because they want to protect their family and their place.
Now, I think if all these dogs could meet in a field and romp around, they’d be good buddies. So I have no beef with the dogs. But they were clearly escalating, and coming up to the entrance of our house seemed like a hard line to me.
I started by reacting the same way. Pulling my dogs inside while talking to them, “I know buddies. It’s so rude for those dogs to harass you. You’re my good dogs, good dogs. I don’t blame you for barking.”
This time, 4 adults were walking these three dogs. I can’t say whether or not anybody yelled an apology or not because we were all too busy trying to get our dogs away from the drama.
I went inside and sat back at the table with my girls. My hands were shaking lightly both from the adrenaline of dealing with agitated dogs and my anger that I had to. I was so mad; I had that knot in my stomach and I couldn’t eat.
“You know what,” I said to my girls. “I’m going to have to say something.”
“You’re going to go talk to them?” my daughters asked, looking worried.
“Yep. I have to tell them that I’m not okay with this.”
Several excruciatingly long minutes passed as I waited for the walking party to stroll up our street, around our cul de sac and back down the other side. When they got close, I walked down my steps. One of the dogs saw me and ran into the street to greet me. I said, “Hey buddy,” and gave him a scratch behind the ear before the owner called him back. Then, as calmly and as nicely as I could, I said, “Hey there. Can you please stop your dogs from running up to our yard when my dogs are outside?”
One of the women looked at me and said, “That’s the first time they’ve come up there.” She meant directly up to the porch, and yes, that was correct. However, it seemed inaccurate to me in the grand scheme.
So I replied, “Yes, but they’ve come up alongside the porch into our side yard a bunch of times.”
She was not pleased with me. I continued, “I don’t even mind when my dogs aren’t out, but when they are out, I’d really appreciate it if you’d keep your dogs from running up there.”
The man walking with her who I assume is her husband cut off her next comment by saying, “We’ll take care of it.”
“Okay, thank you.” And I walked back up my stairs and into the house.
At first, I felt dissatisfied by the interaction. Perhaps I was expecting an apology or at least a recognition of culpability. Or perhaps I wanted to have more of a conversation or debate. I wanted to walk away with a feeling of neighborly understanding. Instead, I felt like the bad guy. I was outnumbered, and I got the impression that this group, especially the woman who talked to me, felt entitled to let their dogs run wherever they wanted. I didn’t get any sense of compromise or empathy for my dogs who are clearly driven nuts by the intrusion of theirs.
Let me be clear. I don’t like confrontation. This was not the easiest route for me to take. My heart raced and I felt agitated after I came inside. I related the story to the girls and I sat with it for a while before it became okay.
As a life coach, I find a few common themes in what I work on with clients. To name a few, they are 1)Set and keep boundaries. 2)Examine your assumptions and expectations. 3)Show up in a way that allows you to sleep at night. And this situation highlights all three.
First of all, this was a boundary issue. Clearly, this woman and I have different boundaries when it comes to our dogs. I could get frustrated every time she breaks my boundary (and I was!), but I can’t blame her because she doesn’t even know the boundary exists. Now, sometimes we feel that boundaries are obvious. For example, I think it’s pretty obvious that if your dogs are running free on someone else’s property, getting the dogs that live there all agitated and riled up, you should stop allowing your dogs to instigate that. I’m not saying this facetiously; I’m using it as an example about how we can be so attached to our own perceptions that we fail to realize that someone might have a different opinion. And this was the case for certain. I believed I was right to my own detriment. Every time the dogs had a confrontation, I was getting angry and incredulous, but I wasn’t saying anything (except under my breath, which is passive aggressive). So my decision to talk to these people was a conscious decision to verbalize a boundary.
Secondly, I had to examine my own assumptions. In my anger, I was projecting all kinds of stuff onto these people. I caught myself thinking that they are rude and unneighborly. I thought, “they probably let their dogs poop in other people’s yards without picking it up, since they let them run free and all.” I have not witnessed this, so it is an unfair assumption. I don’t know them except in passing, so it is easy for me to make stuff up, and it is oddly validating, too, when I can villainize them. We see that happening so often in our world today. We disagree with one aspect of someone’s character or belief system and we invalidate the whole person just so that we don’t have to have a real conversation about our differences.
But honestly, if I look at what I can safely assume about this person, it’s this: Lives in Golden. Loves dogs. Takes long walks around the neighborhood. That’s it. And honestly, that’s a friendship classified that I would likely answer. We probably have more in common than not, so spiraling into hate town over one difference doesn’t serve me.
Finally, I had countless choices about what I could’ve done in this situation. Once I decided I was going to confront the group, I still had countless choices. I could yell. I could threaten. I could cry. I could argue or beg or demur. Or I could ask nicely.
And I’ll be honest; in the moment, the result of asking nicely wasn’t very satisfying. I was amped up and I think I almost wanted a fight. Or maybe I wanted some apologizing and groveling. All I got was a bit of attitude from the woman and a “we’ll take care of it” from the man.
That was over a month ago now, and I haven’t seen those dogs on my street since then. I can’t know what the other party is thinking about the whole interaction, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I am proud of how I showed up. I was civil and neighborly, but I verbalized a boundary and so far it has been respected.
This was a fairly small thing. Even so, it was difficult. It was a lot to process. I know that everyone (including me) is dealing with challenging situations that leave us with a choice about how we show up and how we verbalize our needs and boundaries. And the more personal it is, the harder this process will be. But it's worth it.
If you struggle with setting boundaries, you have to practice. If something isn’t sitting right with you or if you are feeling challenged by a situation in life, start with a conversation. Come from a place of calm. Decide what you ideally would like to happen and verbalize that. And then be okay with it. Rest in the knowledge that you showed up with honesty and best intentions. If the conversation falls on deaf ears or if a verbalized boundary keeps getting broken, then that becomes a new decision point. But you have to start somewhere, and it could be as simple as a short and honest chat.