I used to be terrified of dogs.
Whenever I would see a dog, no matter the size, training, breed, or your incessant affirmations that he is a “sweet dog”: the world slowed down. Shit, the world practically stopped, for me. When a dog was in my general vicinity, everything moved in slow motion and I do not thinking, I would go on survival mode.
As an immigrant this was just my reality, as well as my mamis and older brothers’. In Nicaragua, we learned to have a healthy fear of dogs. Feral dogs are found all over my native land, and they are usually starving and a lot of them have rabies. If you are eating outdoors, in a plaza, or just at a restaurant the odds of a hungry dog approaching are high, very very very high. Furthermore, the ones kept indoors were oftentimes just guard dogs, so they were extraordinarily territorial and scary-looking to me.
I have a few fuzzy memories that feel more like dreams of being chased by feral dogs when I was a little girl. There’s a story that I am told about my brother and I, being chased by a dog while we were on our bikes. We barely got away; we must have been 5 and 7.
When I was younger, nobody I knew owned house dogs. Scratch that, I knew only the elites owned dogs, small cute lap dogs. Those few others who did own dogs, and weren’t part of the ruling class, had them for protection.
It has taken me a LOOONG time to be comfortable around dogs because I had some pretty traumatic but forgotten experiences with dogs that were imprinted into my young mind. I realize that now, in the USA, fearing dogs made me an outsider. Not only am I an immigrant, but I had kept a lot of my memories about things including what I had learned about dogs in my home country. I know that my indignation for my neighbor’s carelessness to walk your dog without a leash around my neighborhood might have seemed trite to them, but I was conditioned to fear dogs and asking them to please respect that felt like scratching my nails on a chalkboard.
But I think it is important to acknowledge that my tension around dogs does in fact make your friendly house dogs tense. I know this, because I have experienced “friendly” dogs not be receptive of me because I cannot control my fear and my own fast beating heart, and they always sense it.
I have a very unfunny memory of being chased by a dog, in my early twenties. My interactions with dogs generally have gone sour because my brain goes into survival mode, I remember running inside a strangers’ open door all the way into their living room. I scared the living daylights out of that strange man, whose house I barged into, but trust me: I was more scared of what that dog could do to me instead of what this strange man would do to me in his home.
I am now comfortable around two dogs. And when I said “comfortable” I mean, I do not run in fear nor do I hyperventilate in their presence. They do jump on me, and while I genuinely believe that they are capable of annihilating me in one swift bite, I also see kindness in their smiles instead of just menacing teeth. I jokingly tell my mom that I am becoming a gringa, because of my current growing tolerance for dogs.
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But if you own a dog, remember that while to you this dog is a loving member of your family – OTHER people do not feel this way about dogs in a general sense.
Immigrants born in impoverished countries (or as I like to say, ransacked countries) tend to have a different context for handling and being around dogs.
Seeing the way that people seem to care about dogs more than people in the United States is really distressful, as an immigrant who had a dog phobia for YEARS. Assuming your dog will cure people of their phobia is actually really presumptuous considering this phobia is marked by numerous experiences that you cannot even imagine. And in a time where this administration and the ones before it seem to only place value on immigrants who “work hard,” and bring something of “value” to this country, remember that truly being welcoming and open to immigrants’ lies in the nuances.
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Immigrants are humans with intricacies and contextually relevant responses, and assimilation is a violent presupposition to make about people who simply want to live better lives. Remember all this, and remember that honoring people’s humanity means acknowledging their phobias too, and if your dog walking around without a leash every night is more important to you than your new immigrant neighbor than maybe JUST MAYBE you need to reevaluate things.
Prisca – your immigrant neighbor, who is still managing her dog phobia.
National Speaker, Guest Writer & Founder, Latina Rebels