Sarah Moss: Irish dog-walkers are kinder than English dog-walkers (2024)

I’m scared of dogs, have been all my life. I can tell you a trauma story if you like, if you’ll take my tale of blood on the stones and blue flashing lights bumping across the beach in exchange for keeping your dog away from me, but the truth is that my mother was scared and my grandmother was scared and it would be a poor evolutionary move, wouldn’t it, for a child not be scared of the animals that scare the adults looking after her?

I understand that the fear is irrational, that dogs kill and maim very few people, and I understand that many people will spare me distress only if they judge that distress to be reasonable. I’m not unusually afraid of being killed and maimed. My pain threshold is high and I’m okay with my own mortality. I’m not, generally, particularly fearful: I like public speaking, have made my living as a university lecturer addressing large audiences who don’t much want to be there, for most of my life. (Public speaking is even less likely to cause you physical pain than a dog but it’s still a common fear.)

I like travelling alone, including in countries where I don’t read the alphabet. I’m comfortable enough walking alone around most cities at night. I cycle in central Dublin. But unless I’m having an exceptionally good, brave day, I can’t walk past an unleashed dog. There’s no point in telling me that the dog is very friendly, any more than there’s any point telling someone scared of public speaking that the audience won’t attack. I will go to great, undignified lengths to avoid reaching the point where your dog’s temperament or mood is of any relevance to my safety. I don’t want your dog to be my friend, I want it not to come near me.

Mostly, I find Irish dog-walkers are kinder than English dog-walkers. Several people who walk dogs along my daily running routes recognise my terror and call or leash their dogs as I approach. More than once, another runner has offered to escort me when I’m trapped between dogs and panicking. I run very early in the morning partly so I can be beside the sea before the dogs come out and usually along the east pier, which has enough stairs that I can go up or down to avoid unleashed dogs. I love hiking but often abort or reroute a walk if there’s a dog loose. It helps to carry a big, preferably thorny, stick, not that I want to come within stick’s reach of a dog but I feel less vulnerable, armed.


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I used to try to protect dog owners from the distress they cause me, try to protect my own dignity in public, hold down my spiralling terror and act normal while my heart hammered and my fingers tingled and my bowels loosened and every fibre of my nervous system howled to run. I don’t bother any more. Most dog-walkers, if they notice, just see a crazy scared woman with wild grey hair. A few get defensive. A few get the point.

I show my fear on behalf of all the people who can’t show fear in public, because I’ve discovered over the years that the terror of dogs is far more common than you think, and especially horrible for men because they are not allowed to be scared. I can shout, please control your dog, I’m frightened. My husband can say – eyes rolling, doubtless – my wife’s afraid of dogs, would you mind putting it on a lead? I can hide behind cars, climb trees, refuse to get out of my car, and I might be called hysterical and neurotic but I’m a difficult woman and I’m used to that.

I know several men whose terror is just as deep and abject as my own, and they don’t go to the park, hold it in at the beach, can’t hike in countries where dogs run free because they lost their permission to be scared when they started primary school. The taboo on fear is one of the ways we can see patriarchy damaging men too. My brothers, I’ll be hysterical for all of us.

[Sarah Moss: Exiting Britain, arriving in Ireland]

Sarah Moss: Irish dog-walkers are kinder than English dog-walkers (2024)


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