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“I have a way with animals.”

Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.

I’ll bet you’ve heard it too.

But did you hear it from somebody with a face not 6 inches distant from the bared teeth of a large growling dog?

No, the dog wasn’t aggressive. You’d probably bare your teeth too if a perfect stranger picked you out of a crowd, strode up quickly, and proceeded to throw his arms around your neck without the slightest warning. Okay, maybe you would just shove the man away, but that is the privilege of hands. The dog didn’t have that option, and sitting on a short leash, it really couldn’t get away from the man either. No, the dog’s temperament seemed fine to me; it just didn’t know what else to do about the situation.

In fact this was a very patient dog; it had done its very best to tell the man to go away.

The man just wasn’t listening.

A minimally observant person would have noticed from the dog’s posture that it was already nervous, sitting there in a crowded pet store with dozens of people moving about. This was the first hour of an adoption event; we were still trying to get all the animals squared away and establish a routine for the day. Despite walking the animals before and after transporting them, we had already had our first accident in a cage. This fellow was sitting on a leash while someone tended to the mess and others (myself included) shuffled animals left and right into the portable kennels we had set up for the occasion. We tried to keep things calm, of course, but it was simply in the nature of such events. The room had a lot of stress to go around at that particular moment and this dog was definitely feeling it.

The man didn’t have a clue.

A minimally observant person would have noticed the dog’s tail, angled as it was a bit downward, almost tucked under him. He would have noticed the whites of the dog’s eyes, something you don’t see so often from a contented canine. A minimally thoughtful person would have realized these signs added up to a moment one ought to respect the poor animal’s boundaries. Of course, a person with minimal sense would have refrained from hugging an animal less than one minute after seeing it for the first time, let alone a dog that was clearly stressed. But of course there was no need to pay attention to such signs, or to observe normal protocols like a chance to sniff the hand, or at least to observe the man long enough to gauge his intent; our man just had a way with animals.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

At the onset of the hug, a few additional clues ought to have brought this man to his senses. Minimally effective ears would have detected the sound of the dog growling. Hell, I could hear the dog growling from across a row of cages and well past a number of talking people, but the man in question either didn’t notice this sound or chose to ignore it and all the other signs that his affection had proven anything but welcome. Either he didn’t see the dog baring its teeth or he lived in a world where that was a good sign. The man seemed perfectly oblivious to the final warnings he was getting even as he cooed nonsense at the dog, desperate as it was to get away from the assault of an idiot’s love.

That poor dog had been doing its best to tell this guy to leave him alone, but none of that message was getting through. There really wasn’t anything left for the poor animal to do but bite him.

Who the Hell could blame the poor creature?

Probably everyone, actually, at least in practice. See, that was the part that really disgusted me as I envisioned the horrible  face wound that was surely about to open up in the middle of a Petsmart. It would be ugly. There would surely be stitches, and I wasn’t at all sure the man would come away with both eyes intact. But I also knew that the dog would not survive the long-term fall-out from this event. I could see myself in a room with a kennel tech, helping him to put down this poor creature guilty of nothing less than defending itself. Whatever injuries this guy’s own foolishness would earn him, they would likely mean the death of the dog.

I was in charge of this adoption event; all of this carnage would of course be my responsibility.

So, there I stood, with a dog-attached leash in one hand and cleaning materials in another, several cages directly between me and the unfolding disaster, and a small group of folks engrossed in conversation blocking the aisle. I had no quick way of getting to the dog or the human, and I thought surely the bite was coming at any moment. So, I chose what I hoped would prove the right volume and tone to get the oblivious man’s attention and asked him to please step back from the dog.

Completely oblivious to the dog’s teeth, the fellow turned and told me not to worry, he had a way with animals.

And the dog bared it’s teeth just a little more.

As I listened to the fool talk and struggled to find words he would actually pay attention to, one of my volunteers turned around to see what had me so alarmed. Upon catching a glimpse of my expression, she quickly followed my own line of sight to find the dog still baring its teeth mere inches from the smiling man. A moment later she pulled the animal back away in one smooth but firm motion. Her eyes met mine and we both gave a sigh of relief as she showed the dog into its newly cleaned cage. The animal-loving man moved on to pester another dog, one that didn’t seem to mind.

I still cringe when I think about that smiling face inches from the dog’s teeth. To this day, the man doesn’t know how lucky he was. How lucky I was.

How lucky the dog was.

The image comes from the Naperville Animal Hospital.