What My Dog Taught Me About Irrational Fear, Taking Risks and Finding Joy


It would be nearly impossible for me to catalog all the profound life lessons I have learned at the knees of -- well, more like at the haunches of -- my dogs. (Of course, I've also learned many practical tips, such as not to leave a made-from-scratch, intended-for-company, pineapple upside down cake unattended, but that's a story for another day.) About 15 years ago, my wonderful and whacked-out dog Jif taught me a lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

Jif was a rescue dog, found as a puppy, frightened and shivering in a dark, dirty Dumpster behind a shopping center. I can only guess at the trauma he'd already endured by that point, but I am certain that small children were somehow involved as Jif remained absolutely terrified of little kids for the entire 12 years of his life. If his choices were to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel or allow a child to pat his head for three seconds, well, he'd willingly go for the big splash down. As my friend's 5-year-old niece wisely observed, "Jif will like me when I'm taller."

The degree to which Jif feared small children is the degree to which he adored other dogs. He'd cry, whimper, strain forcefully at his leash or scratch madly at the door if he detected even a hint of a canine compadre within a 20-mile radius of himself. When a dog park opened near me, I couldn't wait to take Jif and let him run with wild abandon among his own kind. There was only one small problem. Apparently the designers of this doggy Disney World were unaware of Jif's particular phobia, as they had built it directly behind a busy children's playground. To reach the land of Jif's ecstasy, you had to traverse the land of Jif's agony.

I opened the back door of the car and Jif jumped out excitedly... and immediately froze in place. He put all four legs in park and refused to advance one inch forward. Knowing how much he would love the dog park if I could just coax him past the kids' playground, I tried every trick I could think of. For about 20 minutes I variously sweet talked him, enticed him with treats and attempted to overpower him with my very limited brute force, but he would have none of it. He was paralyzed by fear, and it broke my heart not to be able to explain to him that he was missing out on something so wonderful because of his irrational fear. The playground posed no danger to him, but he couldn't understand that. Why couldn't he trust that I would not put him in harm's way, that I was actually trying to open up a whole new world of delight for him? Jif's limited vision could not see it and several attempts on following days only ended in his complete agitation and my complete exasperation. I finally abandoned the dog park idea with Jif never knowing the fun he'd missed out on.

I was frustrated with Jif, but the parallels to my own life were too stark to ignore. How many times had I allowed my irrational fears or limited vision to keep me from a new and wonderful experience? How many times had I let my lack of faith and trust hold me captive in my same old rut? How many times had I permitted the temporary discomfort of change to limit my opportunities for growth? How many times? Uh, more than I could count. How dare I be frustrated with poor Jif, who operated largely on instinct, when I -- the supposedly more intelligent being -- was just as primitive in my reactions to life's challenges?

Since that experience 15 years ago, I have consciously tried to walk in faith toward the changes, challenges and shifting terrain that life brings. It's not easy and I'm not always successful, but I think of Jif and the joy that awaited him "if only," and I resolve to push on. From the rainbow bridge, I hope Jif is smiling with pride at me.

What holds you back from pushing forward to the joy that awaits you?

Photo: eriklam via depositphotos