Who Let the Dogs Out?

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rounding the bend toward the blue house with the dogs, I'm preparing my song. I started singing to the dogs a few weeks ago, when I decided to stop giving them so much power over my life, my choices, my morning jog in the sun. I prefer shade. If I turn right out of my driveway, I can do a three-mile loop that is almost entirely underneath a canopy of maples, oaks, locusts and the occasional Norwegian spruce. Turn left, and it's mostly treeless glare.

I prefer shade.

I started jogging again this summer, after giving my poor knees a break on one of those low-impact elliptical machines, in front of the TV -- "Today" show after "Today" show -- for more than a year, until I couldn't stand it anymore. I needed to get outside.

So, one fine morning, I took the shady route. I hadn't run far before I passed the blue house, which sits just off the edge of the road, way too close to cars for the owners to even think of allowing dogs to run free, in my estimation. Except that as soon as I passed the house, I heard them, roo roo roo roo roo. If we have a leash law in my area, I am unaware of it; you don't get a lot of rules in rural areas. But most people do the right thing. I try not to judge. I work on not judging. I work on not thinking: You people scare me.

The dogs charged after me. I thought, "Oh, darn," at first, because I am not afraid of dogs. I know to keep running and not show fear, and usually that's the end of it. But then I came face to face with my own dog prejudice, when panic shot through my spine. The terror was all about the breed. Uh-oh: Pit bulls! Now that, in itself, is terrible. Just because you hear a few stories on the news about pit bulls shredding humans doesn't mean that all pit bulls shred humans. I worked on thinking: It must be tough being a pit bull, even as I noticed how very . . . thirsty these two looked. "Good morning, girls!" I said in my sweetest tone, like a long-lost aunt. "Hello, Muffy!" I said, making up a name. "Hello, Fluffy!" I kept talking like this while I quickened my pace and they raced alongside me, jumping and sniffing, and then one of them snarled at the other, or at me, and so the other one snarled and I said, "It's okay, girls! Everything is okay!"

"Hey, get over here! Hey! Get back here!" came a man's voice, and they obeyed, and I was gone.

So much for the shady run. If Muffy and Fluffy, whose real names might as easily be Destructo and Slaughter, were going to run free, I was not.

I got a visor and tried to get used to the sunny run, and after a few days started using the hot sun as my excuse not to run. Forget it. Too hot. I'll get skin cancer. But I couldn't go back to the "Today" show. Forget it. I deserve a break. I was talking myself out of an exercise plan -- all because of two snarling dogs.

I considered calling the people in the blue house and explaining, but I never got past an imaginary conversation that had them coming after me with an AK-47 on account of them accusing me of trying to shut down their illegal dogfighting business. That wasn't good. I worked on not thinking: Pit bull owners are gun-wielding loonies who run dogfights and want to kill you.

I set out, then, to tame the pit bulls, or maybe to tame the growl of my own bias. A few weeks ago, I again took the shady run, but this time with a plan. As soon as I saw them I started to sing, "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," the Mister Rogers song. "Roo roo roo roo roo," the dogs answered, and I continued to sing. They ran alongside me, and I said, "Good girl, Muffy! Good girl, Fluffy! Now, you better go on home!" And soon enough they lost interest and turned around. I sang to the pit bulls day after day, and even came to enjoy the company. "You," my husband said, "have a voice that can tame a pit bull." So now here I am, once again rounding the bend toward the blue house. "Good morning, girls!" I say. I begin to sing but Fluffy gets too close, or our rhythm is off, or something. I step on her foot and she squeals in agony, Ark! Ark! Ark! Ark! Do pit bulls understand mistakes? Do you get a second chance? Ark! Ark! Ark! Ark! This could turn into a scuffle; you can feel the shift in tone. I consider kicking, running, making a break for a climbable tree. For no good reason I decide to stop, wait. The dogs stop, wait. We stand there breathing at one another. I bend down and offer to tend to Fluffy's foot, and lead both dogs back to the blue house.

"Your dogs have been following me," I say to the woman who answers the door. She has curly hair and is wearing a T-shirt advertising the New York Philharmonic.

"Yeah, we need to get one of those invisible fences," she says.

"Yeah, I'm thinking you do," I say.

She invites me in for iced tea and tells me the dogs are named Emerson and Thoreau.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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