“Mitch, you know the rule! No standing in the house! Dude, if you want a drink I’ll get you one, but you can’t stand up—it freaks the dog out.” Whenever my friend Mitch comes over, this is my reality. Most of the time, life at home with the dogs is pretty uneventful. The dogs keep themselves occupied playing with toys or enjoying the backyard whenever we’re not snuggling on the sofa. From time to time, my friend Mitch (a towering six-foot-four, bearded lumberjack of a man) will show up, and Skipper does not like it. My usually friendly and docile dog barks constantly at him, clipping his heels, until he sits down. As soon as Mitch hits the couch or chair, it’s like someone flipped a switch and Skip goes back to normal.
Fear of unusually (i.e., freakishly) tall people is only one of Skipper’s many strange and inexplicable phobias. He also fears karate, a fact I discovered when Skipper witnessed our friend Andy doing a Tae-Bo workout video. Additionally, and perhaps more logically, Skipper fears smoke. If we’re getting overzealous with the panini maker or those s’mores are getting a little out of control, Skipper will cower and hide in the bushes and look so sad it’s enough to break your heart in two.
This unique constellation of phobias has lead me to only one logical conclusion: Skipper’s previous owner must have been some sort of ultimate karate master (I’m thinking Bruce Lee), who met his demise at the hands of a giant, bearded redhead (plausibly Chuck Norris) during some sort of epic showdown in a burning building. Skipper likely employed an arsenal of canine kicks and punches to save his sensei, but either the smoke was too thick, or perhaps, Skipper was cruelly thrown aside (which also explains his blindness in one eye), and could not save his dojo-master. That, or like many owners, I have constructed an alternate reality to explain the source of all my dog’s fears with one traumatic event.
It’s a natural tendency to want to believe that Skipper’s life was perfectly happy until one fateful day everything came apart, but it all worked out because I adopted him. It’s almost a mode of self-preservation, considering that I already get overly emotional when watching those ASPCA ads of dogs in shelters: I couldn’t handle imagining poor Skipper going through an extended ordeal. The reality is though, any dog, whether from a shelter or from a responsible breeder, can develop strange phobias that we don’t understand.
Think of it this way: As humans, not all of our phobias come from rational places. Case in point, I had (OK, let’s be real, HAVE) an irrational fear of E.T., stemming from my childhood. This doesn’t mean that I was at any point abducted by aliens, or lured into Drew Barrymore’s closet after following a trail of Reese’s Pieces, or forced to fly away from government agents on a 10-speed bicycle (at least, I can’t recall ever having any of these things happen to me). Sometimes, dogs, like their people, just develop phobias we can’t explain. (Some canine compulsions might even have a genetic component.)
As much as I love Skipper and want to know everything about him, I have to accept that’s not possible. Instead, I just have to be the best dog parent I can be, and deal with his quixotic fears. Unless, of course, I am totally right about that Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris karate showdown. In that case, Skipper has just been trying to tell me something and I should be very, very afraid.