(listening time: 3:56 minutes)
One overcast morning I was walking along a trail deep in thought – perhaps about how snow pants make such a difference on cold days like this one – when, up ahead, Asha did a double take and barked. It took me a few seconds to locate what had startled her – a dark mass by the side of the trail. My first thought was, It’s a bear cub and here I am deep in the woods and I have to pass this cub to get back to the road.
I stood still trying to get a better read on the thing and decide what to do. I don’t think a cub would lie down alone in an exposed place, I thought. Whatever it is, it isn’t moving. Our approach would probably cause an animal to move at least its head so it’s probably not an animal.
Asha does an approach-retreat-bark dance when she’s startled by something. I usually laugh and let her take her time to explore whatever it is. Turtles crossing the road. A large ball of snow. A stack of balanced rocks in the middle of the trail that wasn’t there the day before.
I love the physicality of her natural instincts because I get to see what’s going on. I may stand beside something to show her it’s safe (if it is), but I don’t force her because I trust the wisdom in her reactions. I’ve learned to read her body language – a tucked tail saying she’s scared or a raised, slightly curled tail expressing alertness.
The morning we encountered a “Road Work Ahead” sign, she gave it a wide berth, then explored it more closely on our return trip.
The day we met a porcupine, I steered her away.
The Monday we met my neighbor Kay riding her horse Brooke, Asha ran forward, then stopped suddenly. She moved closer, ran away, barked, approached again while Kay and Brooke waited patiently. Finally, when Asha was fairly close, Brooke bent her head forward and they touched noses.
Different responses. All appropriate. No one size fits all because a porcupine with sharp needles is not a road sign. Nor is it a horse accustomed to dogs.
While Asha was busy barking at the dark mass that gray morning, I was busy with my own natural instincts – standing still and thinking.
Asha quieted down and resumed her explorations and I resumed walking.
As I drew closer, I saw it for what it was – the bottom of an uprooted tree trunk. It became something recognizable, something I could make sense of. And it was something I didn’t need to be afraid of.
Is it possible I have my own, less obvious approach-retreat-bark dance? What if I trust my natural instincts when startled by an idea, faced with a big decision or called to do something that feels scary.
What if I greet my fears, my unknowns with a curious Hmm, what is this? rather than a big gulp of I’m doing this no matter what or a Nope, not going there? Will fear one day bend down and touch my nose?
This story first appeared on the Whimsy & Tea blog at whimsyandtea.com/approach-retreat-bark.