“They Never Can:” How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mob

A while back, I was listening to an episode of Cog-Dog Radio in which Sarah was talking about hiking and meeting uncontrolled dogs on trail and she said a thing that just perfectly linked a hundred different thoughts that had been bouncing around in my head.

That thing was, “I don’t ask people to call their dogs. Because they never can.”

And it was like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. Or to be more precise: the weight of walking my own dogs — one well-trained and also intensely reactive at baseline; the other at the time quite social but young and impressionable and recovering from injury and long, rocky rehab — in the world.

Specifically, of walking them in a world in which my only frame of reference for “a good hike” was “one in which everyone had a good time” and also in which my only tools for making that happen were training skills that relied on maintaining distance and thus on expecting other people to be able to control their dogs and thus getting increasingly angry and guilty and scared every time it turned out that we don’t actually live in that world.

I had seen the symptoms that Sarah talks about in her (really excellent) podcasts: the growing hypervigilence and anxiety in my dogs and myself both. I had started to fumble through trying to find solutions. I’ll forever be grateful to the woman with the Lab that I met on the Welch-Dickey loop one morning, early in my two-dog days and in a moment of utter chaos, who quietly gave us a wide berth while chatting with her dog: “Wasn’t that fun? Wasn’t that fun!” And I mean, it wasn’t. But it gave me a model for doing something — anything! — other than just training my own dogs and righteously holding the trail and feeling like a failure when that didn’t work.

And then this: “I don’t ask people to call their dogs. Because they never can.”

And suddenly I felt so much better, because suddenly I saw into another world where my frame of reference for “a good hike” could still be “one in which everyone had a good time” but there was room for resetting my own expectations, for allowing the fact that we exist in the world, and for coming up with strategies for everyone (that I’m personally responsible for) to have a great time without depending on other folks having a level of control over their dogs that most of them are just never going to have.

I started this post thinking that I would maybe end it by listing out and describing some of those strategies. But as I type, I think maybe not. I don’t want to just replace one set of impossible goals with another. I don’t want to even risk making anybody feel one bit the way that I used to (and still do, sometimes, but now I can recognize, breathe through it, and get happy again on the other side) — that there is some magic combination of words and behaviors that will guarantee an undisturbed walk.

I just want to say that there’s not, and that’s okay, and that I — and you! — and everybody! — can have good hikes, even so.

It turns out that the world is a pretty okay place to live. Now wasn’t that fun?