ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Fight, Flight, and Roxie’s Way
Roxie is our yellow lab puppy. We live on three acres of wooded land surrounded by still more woods. Next door live two small dogs who bark at pretty much everyone who comes within range, and if you’re not—you’re standing in front of your mailbox and they’re in their yard—they’re only too happy to come to you. They run right up, the two of them abreast, sending up a chorus that goes on for quite a while. The sound is a particular form of barking, the way small dogs do, closer to rarararararar than woof.
If you step in their direction, they back away in a kind of rearguard action while still barking as if to make clear that they will stand whatever ground they happen to be on in that particular moment.
There is a stream running along the western boundary of our property and a trail that leads down to it from the house and then home again up the southern boundary separating us from our neighbors and their dogs. The other day I took Roxie for a walk full circle as part of getting her used to the layout of her territory. We were on our way back when we heard the chorus starting up as they came dashing from among the trees, staunchly positioning themselves twenty feet or so away and giving Roxie what-for.
I was standing some distance behind her at the other end of the lead and waited to see what she would do. She had never met them before and this was a rude introduction. Although she will grow to be a large dog—at over thirty pounds she already outweighs the two of them put together—she is a pup for whom everything is new and there is much to be afraid of. She still won’t go up the stairs to our second floor, not for all the cheese, peanut butter, and liver treats in the world, so it seems. So, I didn’t know what she would do.
I didn’t have long to wait. She did not look back at me before lowering herself as close to the ground as she could get without actually lying down. It’s a dog’s way of signaling that she’s not a threat, that she isn’t challenging them in any way.
She held the pose but the other dogs were having none of it. They kept right on barking as if they were going to run her out of town. After a little while she slowly straightened up and took a step in their direction. It was not an aggressive move. If she could have held out her paw to shake and walked at the same time, I’d say that’s what she was trying to get across.
Hello. Nice to meet you.
The dogs abruptly backed up, the pitch and pace of barking ramping up a notch.
Roxie stopped and paused. And then she just sat down.
From where I stood, there was such a quiet and tender resolve in her pose, the soft slope of her back, her body poised neither to charge nor run away, but to sit, as if contemplating something unfamiliar that she did not understand and that might reveal itself if she waited long enough.
The dogs went on barking and Roxie went on sitting.
Can we not find a way to be here together, to accommodate your presence to mine and mine to yours? Must it end with one of us running away, or with one of us winning and the other losing?
Her young self embodied her response to neither fight nor flee, but simply to remain, to hold the space for a third way to enter in and displace the fear concealed behind the bluster and the anger. To create enough room to see what is possible.
After a while, I called softly to her and she turned and followed me down the path to the house, a parting rarararararar thrown in her direction before the silence settled back in. She seemed unperturbed, already looking forward, in the way dogs do, to whatever is coming next.
I expect they will work this out one way or another. Maybe the neighbor dogs will bark at her each and every time they meet for the rest of their lives. And maybe not. But I am fairly confident that Roxie, in her own calm way, will refuse the choice to fight or flee and instead hold out for something better.
The experts describe her first response—lowering herself before them—as a form of submission. Since we are not dogs, the meaning we give to that is that she made herself inferior, less than, a loss of dignity and status based on a dualistic ideal of manhood that dictates respect for the fighter and contempt for the one who submits or runs away. Our cultural heroes are the men who come out on top, the alpha, the dominant who never blinks and doesn’t back down, the last one standing. And we have the assault and murder and war and government gridlock and winner-take-all economy to show for it.
Except, that isn’t how it went in the woods that day. Whatever Roxie was doing, the result was not her being one-down and they one-up or the other way around. She made a gesture which they seemed to reject, at least for now. As far as I could tell, it cost her nothing, and them as well.
And then she made another, which also resolved to nothing that I could see. What it did instead was create an opening for them all to consider. I have no idea how long she would have sat there had I been willing, and what they would have done and where it would have gone.
If what I saw was surrender or submission, I wonder, then, to what? In spite of my limited imagination as a creature of my human culture, I will hazard a guess—that Roxie was surrendering herself not to those particular dogs in a ritual of dominance and submission, but to something larger that called on her to find a way to keep the peace because, quite simply, a world that admits some other choice than to fight or flee results in less unnecessary suffering than a world that does not.
There is a lot that we could learn from dogs. And the innumerable other species who manage with their limited brains to live by more alternatives than two.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read “What Can We Do? Becoming the Question.”