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Taming Samantha

Runner Works Dog Psychology Into Workout

Published May 5, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

A man's best friend may be a runner's worst enemy. This is certainly true for me. A large dog attacked me when I was young. The physical wounds healed a long time ago. The emotional wound is still open. I grew up afraid of dogs. I also transferred my fear to my children. Overcoming my fear of dogs became a priority when I started running eight years ago. My running partner shared my apprehension. We fed on each other's fears. The slightest noise around us could shatter the peace of our morning runs.

The fear of coming across dogs severely restricted my long runs. Eventually, four years ago, I decided to confront the situation. I adopted a German shepherd puppy, Scout, to help me overcome my fears. Scout and I went to dog obedience classes. We walked every day. We ran together. We developed a close bond that only dog and owner can have. Thanks to Scout, I could finally run without the fear of dogs.

Our recent move to the country opened old wounds. Our new house is about a mile from a park with hiking trails. The thought of running from home onto the trails was exhilarating. However, the freedom to run the trails ended before it started. An aggressive dog confronted me on my very first run. I turned back and ran home. For weeks, I battled my fears. Talking them over with my family did not help. Every time I drove past the dog, it charged and chased my car. I became a prisoner in my own home. I resigned myself to running in the city or driving to the park.

As I sank into depression, a sense of anger and defiance boiled inside me. I developed a plan. I stored dog biscuits in the car. Whenever I drove by the dog, I slowed down, opened the window ever so slightly and talked to it. I felt safe inside the car with the engine running. After several days, I had built enough courage to throw a biscuit in its direction. Over the following three weeks, I stopped and talked to it from within the safety of my car. I gave it many biscuits. A neighbor told me the dog's name is Samantha.

It was sunny and mild this morning. I was home alone. The time of reckoning had come. I wrote a short love note to my family. I armed myself with two large dog biscuits. I put my running shoes on and ran out of the door. When I approached Samantha's house, I saw her lying motionless in the middle of the road. Mixed emotions raced through my head. I looked for skid marks and blood. Did a car hit her? Did my plan go to waste?

The thoughts of doom came to a sudden end. Startled out of her sleep by my footsteps, Samantha charged at me. She barked and showed angry teeth. I felt sweat flowing down my leg. Well, I thought it was sweat. I froze. I computed my options. I had only one. I talked to Samantha. I called her name. I bet she had never heard it with an accent. She barked ferociously. I showed her a biscuit. She paused for a second, then charged again. I talked softly and walked slowly towards her. She hesitated and walked back. I offered her the biscuit. She barked. I walked. She backed away from me. I resumed running, biscuit in hand. With one eye on her, I ran beyond her house and to the park.

A few days earlier, my mentor taught me a lesson in dog psychology. "Do not give Samantha a biscuit every time. Make her wonder what she did wrong. Give her some guilt feelings." On my way back from the Park, Samantha was waiting for me. She had a guilty look on her face. She walked up to me quietly. I gave her a biscuit. She took it gently and ran home. I sighed in relief and resumed my run home. There, I took a long hot whirlpool bath to wash off the memories of my captivity.

Samantha runs and barks near Pratts Falls Park. Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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