Turning Fear into Understanding: The Time a Rottweiler Slayed My Hubris

I learned something new about myself recently that doesn’t make me proud. However, it is definitely worth examining. If I lose friends over it, so be it.

A friend and I visited a local rescue when we heard tell of four-week old puppies afoot. She had met them before but thought a little puppy time would be the perfect ending to a long week. I agreed. When isn’t puppy time a good idea? Especially when I’m not responsible for cleaning up after them.

But I digress. Off we went to visit five pudgy little puppies. And they were pudgy. At this age I believe they were just learning to walk so they fell all over each other in the most adorable fashion imaginable. Even if you weren’t a dog person you would have started to coo. They looked something like the photo to the left. Only cuter.

Ridiculous, right?

Did I forget to mention they were Rottweiler puppies? Because they were. Or are, I guess I should say “are” as they are still alive. At least as far as I know they are. Alive, I mean.

Anyway, to end this completely awkward diatribe, I will now talk about the thing I am ashamed to admit.

These utterly charming and delectable puppies were snuggled up next to Mama Rottweiler when we walked in the door. Mama was very calm and sweet-looking herself. She didn’t growl or bark or give any sign our presence annoyed her. When my friend bent down to scoop a puppy into her arms, Mama slowly shifted to nuzzle her hand. After a few seconds she stood up, not to warn us to leave her babies alone, but to shove her large, gleaming head underneath my arm. She was making it clear she wanted a little loving herself.

In that moment I think my heart stopped. It started again as I lifted my hand to stroke her ears, but I noticed my fingers were shaking.

I wasn’t cold. I was afraid.

Why was I so fearful? I wish I had an answer that doesn’t sound totally lame-ass. If you had asked me ten minutes before, I would have denied being afraid of Rottweilers. Though I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with dogs who belong to that particular breed, I didn’t believe I could ever be scared of one. I know better. I inhale the anti-BSL rhetoric with my morning coffee. If Mama Rottweiler had been Mama Pitbull I would have been making just as much a fuss over her as I was her puppies. To put it simply, I don’t believe in judging dogs based on breed. You know this. I’ve made sure the world knows this. And yet…

 I was unquestionably scared. Nervous at the very least. It’s a horrible thing to own up to but there it is.

Does this dog look scary to you? No, she just looks sweet and happy. I must be insane.

By the time we left, Mama had won me over. It was amazing how calm she was while we handled her offspring. All she wanted was a little affection for herself. Gradually, my nerves faded and I was able to provide this without inhibition. At that point I was more shaken by my instinctive reaction than I was by her rippling deltoids. Mama was a true cuddler. Whoever ends up adopting her once her puppies are grown is in for something very special.

Now that some time has passed since the event, I am struggling to find some sort of explanation for the whole misadventure. I’ve never had a single negative experience with a Rottweiler. I’ve not had really any experiences at all. I think they are gorgeous dogs and can make wonderful companions. The only thing that sticks in my brain is my father’s voice saying “never trust a rottweiler.” But could something so minor, something heard decades ago in a context I can’t even recall, really affect my current emotional state? Perhaps, but it’s no excuse.

Rottweilers can herd too! Who knew?

As part of my Year of Zoomery I am doing my best not to beat myself up about things. Instead, I am trying to figure out what I would tell someone else in the same situation. Feeling fear doesn’t make me a bad person. Just because I was a little uncertain about a large dog approaching me doesn’t mean I am going to start lobbying the government to have all Rottweilers banned. In fact, maybe the whole episode happened for a reason. Just maybe I can turn it into something helpful for others.

Last week Aleks of Love & a Six-Foot Leash fame wrote a post about judgment that beats all other posts about judgment. I am sure you have read it already but if not I highly recommend clicking the link. My thought is that my Rottweiler fears may fit in to this somewhere. I know this post is already far too long, but hear me out.

I spent most of 2011 feeling like I was banging my head against my desk when it came to fighting breed prejudice. Every time I had a conversation with someone about pitbulls or dobermans or rottweilers, I felt I was getting no where in educating them. Why, I hollered to the world at large, why can’t people just stop hating the breed and start seeing the dog beneath? I got frustrated. And angry. There was a point I just gave up. If I heard someone say something stupid about all pitbulls being evil, I let them keep their beliefs and walked away.

Now that I’ve felt a smidgeon of this irrational fear for myself, I realize what an ass I was. You can’t fight fear with anger. It only serves to make others even more defensive than ever before. If my friend had noticed my shaking fingers while petting the Rottweiler (I hope she didn’t) and yelled at me for being dumb, I probably would have left feeling like crap and missed out on what became a very positive experience.

Consider this a formal apology to all those who felt my wrath last year. I’m sorry I wasn’t more understanding. Fear doesn’t always make sense and being scared doesn’t make you a terrible, dog-hating freak. What’s important is how you respond to the fear: if you let it take over or if you seek to conquer it. This year, I pledge to do my best to help you achieve the latter.

36 thoughts on “Turning Fear into Understanding: The Time a Rottweiler Slayed My Hubris

  1. Only dog I was scared of was my brothers dog when it snarled and growled at me. I really felt it’s next step was to bite. I trust a dog, or any animal until it gives me cause not to.

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  2. Great post! Yeah, you can’t beat yourself up about your natural reaction. It’s awesome that you went further to try to find out why and how to apply this situation to other situations.
    Who knows, maybe that old saying did affect you. Sometimes the smallest things, hidden in our memories, have such profound effects. Plus, if we don’t have too much experience with things, we sometimes fear them.
    I cannot say myself that I would love to run up to a Rotty and assume they are super friendly and loveable (same as pitts and other breeds), but I love to learn about them through advocates and owners. I know that it is some idiots out there that breed them to be a certain way and it doesn’t mean that is their true nature.
    Anyhoo, I think you took a situation you were not happy with and turned it around. You took the time to play with the mama and in the end change your fear and reflect on past actions. I hope I can do the same in a situation that I find I wasn’t happy with my behavior, feelings, etc. :)

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  3. I wouldn’t discount the power of that little voice from your dad. Evolution requires us to learn those lessons & learn them fast: don’t eat that berry, don’t touch that snake, this forest is safe, that one too dangerous, this mushroom will kill you in seconds. I think these messages get deeply buried in our reptile brain & it’s responsible for helping us survive infancy & survive as a species as a whole.

    You can reprogram your thinking, of course, but it’s actually much harder than it seems, even when your ‘logical’ brain is giving you new, correct information. Many family dysfunctions, patterns of passive-aggressive behavior & even addictions are thought to stem from early patterning in this part of the brain.

    And an interesting aside is to consider dogs & their phobias and fears. They can be just as ‘instinctively’ coded in their brain & due to their lack of the same brain capacity as we have, it’s even harder to reprogram those patterns. It can give us more empathy for them & how hard it is for them to change certain beliefs when we realize how hard it is for us & that it’s even harder for them, since they don’t use much reasoning & logic to figure out their world…..

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  4. Hi Kristine, it’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re still a good cookie. Now that you know, you’ll be a better person. Now go out and play with Shiva.

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  5. As I was reading this I was thinking, “I would be pretty darn cautious around a new mom and her pups too…” I think it’s instinctive to be very careful around a new mom and her little ones, regardless of her breed, species, whatever (I haven’t even had my human kid yet and I already know watching other people handle my baby is going to take some getting used to).

    Maybe it’s because I’m pregnant, but that’s the angle that stood out for me. I know if someone I didn’t know grabbed my kid there would a good chance I’d knock them down. Maybe your instinct was directing you to be careful in the presence of motherhood? Maybe not… but maybe :)

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  6. Oh, Kristine, you have nothing to be ashamed of!!

    Two of the sweetest rottweilers in the world have owned me…First Gertie, and now Peaches. Yet, I am both wary of ALL strange dogs (no matter what breed) and I am aware that my sweet Peaches may be frightening to others (no matter how sweet she has always been). I try to remember that NO dog, ever, is completely predictable. And I try be sensitive that others may not see my fur-legged friends in the same light that I do.

    Rottie puppies sure are cute, aren’t they?

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  7. I thought similarly as Shawna – I HOPE I wouldn’t concerned about the breed but about a big momma dog with very young puppies who is moving toward me, however gently she seems. While your dad’s admonition is certainly part of your internal voice, a momma dog would make me nervous until I am sure she is OK with me around her babies.
    I shared a photo of my Dobie/hound mix with a very rescue involved friend of mine; the photo is a “hard” one – his eyes are tight and he indeed looks scary, though I know he is a big baby. She confessed to me Dobermanns make her nervous; never mind Justus is a mix – in that photo, he looked like he meant business.
    I applaud your recognition re: fear and anger. I need to accept that some situations make me nervous; they don’t make me “bad” just nervous – which leads to self-exploration of the “why.”
    This is one of your more exemplary entries-thank you.

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  8. I love Rotties, so I don’t know that I’ve ever been nervous around one. But put me in a room with a Chihuahua, and I’m nervous.
    As a child, I had a nightmare that featured an Old English Sheep Dog that turned into a 3 headed Doberman and the heads had an argument about how they were going to kill me. (I blame my fascination with Greek mythology.) To this day, I am a little nervous when meeting dogs of either of those breeds.
    I rarely run across an OESD, but we have lots of Dobermans at our dog parks. One of Larry’s favorite playmates is a lovely young Dobie, and yet, I’m always a little more cautious when meeting those dogs.
    I think the important part is that you fought past your fears and nerves and instead had a wonderful, positive interaction with these dogs.

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  9. I’m afraid of any mother dog with puppies. You don’t know whether they are proud to show them off, very protective, or just want a little of your affection for themselves. The breed doesn’t matter. I’ve seen a normally sweet-tempered mama Poodle try to rip off a finger to protect her babies.

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  10. Bravo for sharing Kristine. I think people outside the BSL movement need to hear stories like this and we need to be sharing the message with those who are afraid of certain breeds that it is OK. If people feel like the breed advocates are going to go on the attack, we’ll never make any progress. Awesome post.

    PS – like everyone else, I’m super wary of any Mama animal. My aunt’s dog attacked a cat when I was young because the kitty got too close. This was a normally docile, sweet delightful pom with a fabulous temperment test and all sorts of titles. Mama’s can be fierce.

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  11. Oh the sight of those gorgeous little puppies and big mama…just wonderful, but I know I too would have been scared, any mama protecting her babies can be unpredictable even human ones lol. I’m still dreaming of the cute little pups…

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  12. Most dog lovers have dogs they are more careful around… for me, I am VERY careful around doxies, chi’s, and min-pins. I’ve had more scarey moments with these dogs than any other dog. It’s not that I don’t like them… I am just very careful because my experiences tell me that they can go from comfortable to BITE in a blink of an eye and many have been accidentally taught that growling isn’t effective so they give fewer and fewer body language cues that they are about to bite.

    Right now I have the most AMAZING rotties in one of my classes… he’s a HUGE brute and it is just fantastic… I don’t hug or snuggle most dogs… i know they don’t like it… but this boy… he likes the attention and I will lavish him with kisses and snuggles happily :)

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  13. As many other people have said, it always pays to be cautious around a mama dog and her babies. You’re a good person Ms K. Respect for a dog’s space (even if it resulted in trembling fingers) is quite different from irrational hatred or fear. Personally, I’m cautious around pomeranians, daschunds (why can I never spell this word?!) and chihuahuas ;p

    Have a great weekend x

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  14. I am leery of any dog that I don’t know – or that doesn’t know me – especially if it a mother with pups. Caution is smart – fear is something to be overcome. I actually had a “friend” who called child welfare on me when Ken was born because we did not have our german shepard put down – this “friend” was terrified of Shepards and was convinced Sheba would kill our new baby –
    Long story short – Sheba was a magnificent dog with our kids – and my friend eventually learned that all Shepards were not to be feared – they are like any other breed – some good some bad. So don’t beat yourself up about being having some fear – it is normal with the unknown – overcoming that fear – when there is no cause – is the important part.

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  15. I definitely think a lot of us have instinctive fearful reactions to some dogs. I have a fear of german shepherds because of an aunt’s dog that growled at me once growing up- it didn’t even bite me but somehow that childhood nervousness comes back every time I encounter a german shepherd for the first time. As long as we can realize that our fears are irrational and don’t mean that all dogs of a certain breed are bad, I think that only makes us more effective fighters against things like BSL. Bravo for having the courage to work through your fears (and OMG rottie puppies are so cute)

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  16. This was a great post Kristine, I could see myself in the story. I’ve always been sort of wary of big dogs, and I’m not sure whether it is fear or caution.

    We have a sweet Malamute in our Thursday night class and until I got to know him I was terrified of him. Some of the larger or more powerful breeds can be slightly intimidating, even to a dog lover.

    Friends of ours had a big Rottie, Jessie. By all accounts she was a very sweet dog, still I was cautious around her. The first time I reached to pet her on the head she barked at me and scared me to bits. Apparently she didn’t like to be touched on the top of her head, but I didn’t know that.

    I like to think I am a progressive dog owner and an advocate for all breeds, but I admit there are still times when I am hesitant near certain dogs. It is good to be aware of where our hesitations are and try to understand where they come from, in that manner we have the opportunity to work thru them, which is what you did.

    Good for you!

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  17. Kristine, I OWN a GSD cross and I’m still nervous around German Shepherds! Fear is not always logical!

    Let’s face it, BSL, stupid as it is, is based on something real– the greater ability of certain breeds to do more damage to a human body than others. No one is calling for a ban on pugs for a reason.

    I used to be terrified of Rottweilers too, and a vicious one lived down the street from my brother for years. I was won over by a beautiful girl named Bonnie many years ago– so many I’m sure Bonnie long ago crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Maybe one day I’ll do a post about her. :)

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  18. Oh I love Rotties! If they weren’t such a health-challenged breed I would probably have one. Of course when I was in high school my friend had a Rottie called Luger. He was adorable. I used to walk my dog Rusty (kelpie cross) with my friend and Luger ever day. My neighbours had a Rottie for a while, and while Bender snarled and barked at him through the window or behind the fence he never responded.

    My first ever rescue was a suspected Rottie X – he turned into a fat, cuddly, lovely dog once we worked through his fear issues.

    I usually deal with the BSL arguers by trying to get people to meet the dogs they would see legislation against. Say look at this bull breed dog! If BSL comes in this dog will be at risk of being identified as a ‘pit bull’ and being destroyed! :P

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  19. I too used to get annoyed at people that didn’t like certain breeds or dogs in general. As a dog trainer, I learned that dislike usually came from fear. The best way to help people overcome their fear and/or dislike is to expose them (at a distance if needed) to a well behaved representation of what they fear. All too often people get angry that their neighbor doesn’t like their dog without realizing that their dog (even though friendly) lunges or jumps on them every chance they get. If we all work on making our dogs good representatives of the breed and animal, we can change opinions, one person at a time.

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  20. Also this – there is nothing wrong with respecting a dog you don’t know. Give it space, give it time to tell you that it’s a good dog, too.

    There is nothing at all wrong with looking at any dog, large breed or small, and wondering if those eyes are warm and welcoming, or sizing you up. When you don’t know the dog, there is nothing at all wrong with a bit of extended caution.

    She sounds like a real sweetie, and you did just fine. Don’t beat yourself up.

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  21. It’s amazing how fears can just arise from no where and sometimes we don’t even know they are there! The amazing thing is that you were able to face your fear and overcome it – good for you! And the awareness you gained from it is even more impressive :)

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  22. I’m pretty rational when it comes to dogs and I am not afraid of any specific breed of dog. I don’t know why, but I’m just not a Rottie fan. I’ve never been bit by one or menaced by one, I just feel uncomfortable around the breed of dog. Call me crazy…

    Good for you & getting over your fear!

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  23. Very nice post Kristine.
    You are not alone in your fear. I am terrified of GSD’s and I work in a vet’s office and we see all the GSD’s from the local police k-9 unit. My hands are literally sweating when they come into the clinic and usually I make myself unavailable to go into the room by hiding in the bathroom:) I have never been bitten by one or even growled at by one, I am simply just afraid of them. Even when I see one out in public I get nervous.

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  24. It’s easy to know something intellectually. You also can’t help what you feel. The fact that you recognize the dissonance, that’s something to be proud of and (if you want or can) work on.

    Really, it took guts to be able to post this. Good show!

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  25. Cool post. My massive German Shepherd – that on every walk someone fell over themselves to pat or cuddle him, one day growled at a lady walking towards us. I couldn’t believe it and told him off. “She” apologised as she got close and said sorry she was just terrified of dogs and he must have sensed it from 10 paces, and didn’t trust her from that. Scary really. If any dog of any size growled at him he’d whimper and hide behind me, but he didn’t trust the smell of a scared human, wasn’t used to it. Not sure if this post has much relevance to yours. I’d always be wary of any dog with pups of that age. Dogs are amazing, I wish we spoke better dog than they can speak human.

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  26. I think your post is just great – I’m glad you wrote about this experience. I’m enjoying reading the responses in the comments too. It’s very thought-provoking, all around.

    I definitely agree – fear is not rational, and responding to someone else’s fear with anger isn’t going to result in any change. It’s just going to make things worse.

    I used to have a fear of Rotties when I was younger too, until I was won over by a particularly sweet one. I think that sometimes we do internalize all those little voices along the way regarding breeds to be wary of or afraid of, and until our mind has an experience or evidence to convince us otherwise, that fear can hide in our subconscious and surface (rationally or irrationally) when we least expect it.

    For example, I’ve never been scared of German Shepherds, but I think it’s because we adopted my neighbor’s gentle giant when I was young and no one in my family ever warned me about German Shepherds. In fact, the things I internalized as a child about that breed was the exact opposite – they are heroes, protectors. (Ours actually saved the neighbor boys who were attacked by a different dog in the neighborhood – she fought him off and got him away from the boys, two of whom had already been bitten). On the other hand, it took me a very long time to feel comfortable around Dobermans, because my uncle had one and I was always warned to stay away from her. It stuck with me for quite some time.

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  27. Being cautious or even fearful of a Rottie with pups is not a bad thing. Breeds have certain characteristics which can be accentuated when protecting their young. It is not judgmental, but rather nature. Take Smokey, Freighter’s mom. She is the sweetest of sweetest Chessies (a breed known for being protective). I don’t think she has ever growled, except when it came to her pups and then she was protective of them with people she did not know. Now did it make her a bad dog? No of course not. Would anyone approaching her with her pups have been a bad person if they had proceeded with care? Of course not. You did not know that dog. That dog did not know you. Rotties can have the breed characteristic of being protective (my Aunt is a Rottie fancier). The thing is that you were able to set aside your fear and see the great dog underneath. But I do not think you would be wrong to proceed with caution should you find yourself around a Rottie you don’t know again in the future.

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  28. I think we have all had an experience or two that makes us scare of some breed of dog, not for the dog itself, but for what we witness with them. Two vicious Chows fighting, lead me to fear and then to hatred of the breed. Only to find out Brut was part Chow. Coincidence? My relationship with Brut has been about healing what I have believed all these years. And honestly because Brut can still be aggressive, there are times I am still scared of his reaction.

    When Silver had her puppies, she growled at me once. I was a bit nervous about touching another one of those pups, because I would never have thought she’d do that with me. But I realized she was letting me know she didn’t need my help in that instant. It still scared me. And this was my own dog.

    And honestly I love all the large guard dog breeds, but I have a high level of respect for them and some fear.

    I am so glad that you were brave enough to follow through with this dog and have a positive experience. Whether it was the breed or just a general fear, I’m sure the mother knew your good heart and that no harm was coming to her or her babies and so she helped you feel that fear through with trust and love to show what you needed. And that’s what mother’s do. :)

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  29. as i was reading this, i was thinking it was probably the sheer size of the dog that affected you, especially considering you might have assumed momma bear was already in Protection Mode. you’re completely entitled to your feelings, of course, and if this served to help you see another side of things, then i think that’s great. i wonder, though, how many people have bully breed issues because they’re afraid. i suspect a very large amount of those folks with prejudices against certain dog breeds or types are holding those views due to ignorance or because they’ve taken on someone else’s opinion for no good reason. that’s what makes me the most upset.

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  30. A very wise post. Aleksandra’s post left me thinking as well. Fear is often hard to deal with, but anger rarely solves it. Just look at what a mess our politics is here and you understand that fear and anger combine in bad ways.

    I used to have a fear of pitbulls, mostly from reading a story in the paper or hearing one the news. Then I volunteered at our local shelter and learned that pibbles are really wonderful dogs. I still remember my favorite one – Thor. He was a little pitbull, but had tons of personality. I think your fear isn’t irrational, but worth examinging. Thanks for sharing your own personal struggle with your fear and examining it with us.

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  31. I think the important part in all of this is that she won you over. If only anyone who is afraid of a breed of dog could meet a great example like her, I bet a lot of breed prejudice would melt away.

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  32. Great post, Kristine. As smart as we are, we can’t undo that reptilian part of our brain that has kept us alive all these years. Being a little nervous around any dog you’re unfamiliar with is a good idea – trust takes time, and the important thing is that you got there with this sweet mama.

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  33. Pingback: acknowledging anger’s function (since a whole spirit is inclusive) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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