This post started out a lot angrier. In fact, it started life in my head as a snarky open letter. But time passed between when I first wanted to write the post and when I was finally able to sit down and write... and my anger has cooled and my opinion of the incident that provoked it has become more nuanced. So, instead of a snarky open letter, I'll just tell a story and ask a question at the end.
This morning, my husband, my sister, and I took the girls down to our local park. It was a gorgeous day, and we were all in a good mood when we got there. Petunia went straight to the swings. Pumpkin pushed her baby doll in a swing for awhile, but then she wanted to run. The park has a playground, a picnic area (with tables) on a slight slope, a basketball court, and a big open field. Pumpkin wanted to run in the field, but she wasn't sure, because there were also a lot of dogs in the field. All the dogs were with their owners, but none of them were on leashes- even though there are signs all over the park saying that dogs must be leashed.
Now, I'm sympathetic to the dog owners on this point. It is a big open field that just begs dogs to run in it. But here's the thing: it also begs little kids to run in it. Pumpkin wanted to run in the field, and all the dogs were with their owners, so I ignored the little voice in my head that said the dogs might think that she wanted to play with them and chase her. I convinced myself that the little voice was just the little kid I used to be, who was deathly afraid of dogs and whose sister still chuckles when she recounts the time we came upon a dog on our walk to school and I ran around and around in circles with it chasing happily after me, until I broke free from whatever centripetal force had me in its sway and shot off towards home.
I shushed the little voice, pointed to an area without any dogs in it, and told Pumpkin to run there, because if she ran too close to the dogs, "the doggies might get confused and think you want to play with them." She took off running, holding her baby. My sister and I watched her run, and commented on how the fact that she was holding the baby doll changed her gait.
She ran a little closer to the dogs than I intended, and two large dogs stopped playing with each other, right next to their owners, and started chasing Pumpkin. I cannot say whether or not the owners tried to stop this, because I was not close enough to hear them. But if they tried, they failed, because the dogs were definitely chasing Pumpkin.
Pumpkin is not a natural with dogs. She used to be as scared of them as I ever was, but with a lot of time and patience, and the help of a friendly, gentle dog who visits her day care, she has mostly gotten past that and is usually interested in petting a dog when she sees one. She is not, however, interested in being chased by two large dogs. She started to scream and run in circles trying to get away. I was immediately on my feet, running towards her, yelling for the dog owners to get their dogs away from her. Before I could get to her, one of the dogs knocked her over. I don't think the dog did on purpose- he just bumped into her. The dog probably weighed about 50 lbs. She weighs 35 lbs at most. She fell down, still screaming.
I got to her seconds later and picked her up. The entire incident probably lasted less than 30 seconds. The dogs had meant no harm. She had been licked and nuzzled, but not hurt in the slightest.
But she was terrified. It took several minutes to calm her down. She had lost her shoe and dropped her baby. I gathered those up, and I'm ashamed to admit that I told the dog owners, who had by this time come and put their dogs on leashes, that this was not actually a leash free park. That was unkind of me. The dog owners knew this, of course. They are locals, like we are.
Their dogs had not actually hurt Pumpkin, just scared her. They'd scared me, too. The dog owners were no doubt confident that their dogs would not hurt a child. I didn't know that, though, and Pumpkin certainly didn't know it. And, you know what? The dog owners didn't really know that, either. Dogs are animals, and are not 100% predictable. I do not think a child should ever approach a strange dog uninvited, and I do not think a dog owner should ever let his or her dog run over to a strange child uninvited, either. Put yourself in Pumpkin's shoes. The dogs were both almost as tall as she is, and they each weighed more than her. Their mouths full of teeth were roughly at neck height. I don't know why people are surprised that some kids are afraid of dogs. I'm more surprised that some kids aren't.
After a few minutes, when Pumpkin had stopped screaming, one of the dog owners came over to check that Pumpkin was OK. I assured her that Pumpkin was fine, just scared. She understood. She was a nice woman, and I'm sure the other dog's owner was nice, too. The dogs and their owners left, and Hubby was able to get Pumpkin up and running again, although she would only run on the slope with the picnic area, not in the big field. We enjoyed the rest of our time at the park, and then walked home and had applesauce-oatmeal pancakes for lunch. I cannot say, as I was going to in my snarky open letter, that the incident ruined our day. It didn't even ruin our trip to the park.
I now see that incident as a warning to all involved. Pumpkin and I got a fright, for sure, but hopefully the dog owners also stopped and thought about what happened. They were not able to keep their unleashed dogs under control. The dogs caused no physical harm, so they were able to leash their dogs again and go home. If a dog had actually bitten Pumpkin, that would not have been the case. I would have called 911, and the dog would have been taken away, and might well have been put down.
Pumpkin seems to be over the incident altogether, although I suspect that we undid a lot of the careful work that has gone into making her more comfortable around dogs. A little dog walked past us as we left the park, and where last week, she would have walked confidently past the dog, today she froze, grabbed for my hand, and put me between her and the dog. Still, she was happy and playful the rest of the day, save the usual drama that seems to attend the phase we're in right now.
I'm mostly over the incident, too, although I am still a bit unnerved by what could have happened if those dogs weren't friendly. I don't think I'll let Pumpkin get so far away from me near unknown dogs again. And I still feel terrible for giving Pumpkin bad advice. She asked if I thought it would be OK to run in the field, and I said it would be. I was wrong. Hubby thinks that I should have run with Pumpkin. I agree that this would have allowed me to prevent the worst of the incident- I would have swooped her up as soon as the dogs came running over, and I could have held her until the owners came and calmed their dogs down. Perhaps the dog owners think it is Pumpkin's fault: she should not have run in a place where so many dogs were playing. The law says that those dogs should not have been off their leashes at
all. It is a law that is routinely flouted in our local park, and as I said above, I can understand why. However, I expected that anyone who had their dog off its leash would be able to control the dog. That was not the case.
So, what do you think? Were the dog owners in the wrong? Was I in the wrong for letting Pumpkin run there? I certainly won't do it again- not that she is likely to ask. But that makes me wonder: where are children supposed to run, if every park is fair game for unleashed dogs, regardless of what the signs say? The dog owners could have taken their dogs to one of several leash free parks within a short drive from our neighborhood park. Where can I take Pumpkin to run?