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Suburban Diary

A face-to-face encounter helped him lick his lifetime fear of dogs

Lucy (with tennis ball) played with Willy.
Lucy (with tennis ball) played with Willy. Handout

I grew up deathly afraid of dogs. I had my reasons. Dogs were fond of biting me. Like I need another reason?

Our house was across from Coolidge Field. I could practically fall out of bed and land on second base. Coolidge was a mecca for sports-minded Natick kids. So naturally that’s where I spent most of my time during the boring elementary school years.

I was always playing something, and constantly running, except when I was bombin’ around on my tricycle. It was a great childhood. Except for the dogs, the ones who elected to bite me; the dogs who started smacking their chops at first sight of me.

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I recall getting bitten three times — twice one summer — when I was about 7 or 8. Other neighborhood kids had dogs, but I never got close with one, although dogs seemed to get attached to me. Well, attached to my thigh or ankle anyway. I’d run home crying and bleeding. Soon as my mother heard my wailing — it wasn’t the first time — she had the antiseptic and Band-Aids in hand before I came through the door.

So yeah, puppy love was an undiscovered emotion to me.

Two minutes from our house lived a muscular dog named Jake. My problem with Jake was this: He lived three houses down from a small market where my mother often sent me for milk and bread. But to get to the store, I needed to pass by Jake’s house. He could sense my panic from 50 yards away. He had one of those deep-throated barks that made me tremble.

Needless to say I avoided Jake’s space and mapped out a route to the store that took me three hilly blocks out of my way. Same thing on the way home. If Jake hadn’t been around, I could have made the trip in 12 or 13 minutes. Jake turned it into almost half an hour. My mother would ask me what took me so long. I never told her about Jake. I just made up a cockamamie story she’d heard too many times. She’d give me the “il malocchio” (evil eye in Italian) and say “Just give me the bread.”

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Dogs, I’m telling ya.

But hold on. There’s a happy ending!

Fast forward to adulthood, you know, marriage, parenthood, important stuff. My wife, Mary Anne, had grown up with dogs in mostly rural stops during her father’s long Army career. She decided our young son, Christian, should have a dog, and she said it in an unflinching, we’re GOING to get a dog way. I said OK, lump firmly in throat.

We got doggie books and searched for breeds like new parents search for baby names. Photos of Shetland sheepdogs — shelties — caught our eye. We went to a breeder in New Hampshire where dogs hoping to be bought and uncaged wept softly and tilted their heads slightly, begging for our attention. Smart little creatures, I thought.

I was convinced even a sweetie-pie sheltie would instinctively know my history with dogs, sense my fear, and proceed to bite my thumb off.

A salesperson asked me if I wanted to hold one. Me, take a dog in my arms? No, no I insisted. Give it to my wife. She loves dogs.

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Of course, I had to give in.

The salesperson handed me this little ball of fur. It felt weightless. It looked at me kind of funny. Then I did the unthinkable. I lifted it so that we were eye to eye. We got close, before I could flinch away. It licked my face. Didn’t bite or scratch. Licked my face. And it struck me: This is what I was petrified of my entire life, a puppy with an icky tongue? That’s the worst of it?

We bought him. Named him Andy. He’d be the first of seven shelties we’d own, or be owned by, if you know what I mean. On two occasions we had two shelties. I became a dog lover, the mental and physical scars of my youth long gone.

Now it is my whim to unabashedly bother anyone walking a dog and ask, “What’s better than a dog?” I tell them there are only two possible answers.

1. Nothing

2. Two dogs

When I fall, I fall hard.


Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs41@gmail.com.