We were about to race from the edge of the woods back to the grandparents’ house when no.2 son paused to tie his shoe laces. A characteristic time wasting trick of a footballer, but unlike him to want to either delay a race or address his untied trainers without being instructed. He stayed crouched down until he could see a man with two dogs move out of sight to the left of some houses at the foot of the field we were going to run down. Unnerved by the dogs’ presence, even in the distance, no.2 son asked not to race.
We walked down the field, with his hand holding mine, until we reached the track that ran around the cluster of houses, with our destination at the end. We headed to the right and no.2 son sped ahead. Suddenly, from a gap between two properties the dogs reappeared and bounded, barking towards the boy. He squealed and froze, trapped for an instant by two large dogs against a hawthorn hedge. The owner called the dogs away leaving no.2 son unharmed, but shaken.
“I’m scared stiff,” he offered in unnecessary explanation.
No.2 son is the boldest, most physically forward of my children. In football, he’ll tackle adults many times his size. He relishes thrills at funfairs that his older brother shrinks from. He rough-houses with more vigour than his siblings. On our adventure holiday, he was the one stepping forward to try the new challenge.
But dogs are different. So total is his aversion to them that they influence his attitude to any trip from the house. Despite his size, strength and the number of balls that disappear over the fence, he only wants to play football in the garden. On the occasions that I have lured him to the park, he’s on edge. When he spots a dog, he veers away from it, stops playing and nags to go home. The initial source of this phobia is not clear; nor is the cure.
When we pass dogs in the park, or the street and he turns rigid with anxiety, I make a point of demonstrating that the dog’s not interested in him. Any chase or toothy attention is focused on a squirrel, its owner’s tennis ball, or another dog’s bottom. Over time, I have hoped that the sheer number of dogs that come close but ultimately ignore, and certainly don’t harm him, would erode the fear. But he’s not listening to me. He turns his head to keep an eye on the dog, making sure it doesn’t approach him from behind. And my tactic was dealt a blow this summer.
His older brother was making his senior cricket debut and the two younger children and I turned up to catch some of this occasion. No.2 son and I were kicking a ball about on the boundary when there was the sound of a doggy altercation on the road behind the pavilion. A few minutes later, a bull terrier ran though the gate and onto the ground. It ran in a wide arc across the playing area and back towards the players and spectators in front of the pavilion. I helped catch it and bundle it out of the gate.
No.2 son had retreated to join the small crowd and was still there when the dog reappeared, pushing itself under the gate. Again it bothered the players before zooming in on the knot of people by the pavilion. No.2 son backed away from the speeding dog but somehow collided with it. For a second time I grabbed it by the collar and dragged it out of the gate. The dog wanted to stay, but wasn’t aggressive as I pulled it off the ground. An owner, had one been in sight, would probably have apologised: “He just wants to play.”
In front of the pavilion, no.2 son was being consoled. I explained to those concerned that I thought he was just shaken because of his fear of dogs. Inside the pavilion, the lad complained his knee hurt. There was no bite mark, not even a scratch or a bruise.
He limped about for the rest of the day and again the next. When a second full day went by without him even asking to play football, Mother in the Middle took him to the GP. The injury – a tendon strain – was relatively minor, but the incident has firmly cemented in his brain the conviction that dogs are out to harm him.
Postscript: when telling this story at a family gathering, I was told that a professional goalkeeper’s career had been ended when a stray dog ran onto the pitch, clattered into him and shattered his knee. Click here for the video of the incident.
I had viewed no.2 son’s experience as a freak – such extreme bad fortune that a dog running around the wide expanse of a cricket field should collide with the leg of the child with the most engrained fear of the animal. Perhaps, though, what is worthy of note is no.2 son’s good fortune not to have been more seriously injured.