I might not have see the dog, even if I’d been paying closer attention. He darted out from behind a large trash can and a low brick wall, and his nose was nuzzling my fingers before I even knew what was happening. Luckily, his intentions weren’t hostile, and I was able to just walk away. But there’s no guarantee that will always be the outcome.
I was out for a “road hike” when it happened. I’m going backpacking with a friend semi-regularly now so I’ve added a small pack of about 15 pounds to my routine when I go for a walk. It’s good exercise, good practice, and a chance to troubleshoot my gear. When the stray dog approached me, I was two miles into a 3-1/2 mile walk. I had a good pace, good rhythm, and I was feeling relaxed and confident. And just like that, relaxed and confident, I let my guard down and my attention drift, for just a minute.
Don’t get too comfortable. The walk was going well, I was feeling good about my progress and so I let myself get into a place of comfort, of taking my attention off what I was doing and letting my mind wander. On a hiking trail, this is how you can miss the hole you break your ankle on or the rattlesnake behind the pile of dead leaves. On a city street, it’s how you miss the dog, or the human predator. It’s nice to be relaxed and comfortable, but don’t get too relaxed and comfortable. Don’t relax so much that you lose your awareness of your surroundings.
Be cautious about task fixation. I was using this walk to test out my backpacking gear, and I’d just finished a task that took my attention heads-down for several moments – the hose attached to the pack’s hydration bladder had become tangled up in the pack straps, and I’d been working to untangle it while I walked. As a result, my attention wasn’t on my surroundings. Had it been, I might have spotted the dog coming. A better choice would have been to clear my immediate surroundings, stop to untangle my hose, and then re-scan what was around me.
Remember that you live in a three-dimensional world. Threats can and do come from above and below you. They come from all sides, in front and behind. Turning your head from side to side as you look for trouble only gives you a slice of your surroundings. But when you don’t remember no look up and down too, you can miss the snake, the hawk, the gopher hole and the falling boulder. Try to make sure you maintain an awareness in three dimensions of your surroundings.
Have a plan. I had weapons on my person, but had this been a rabid attacking dog instead of a benign licking one, I’m not honestly sure I’d have had time to access them, because I was definitely stuck in the “observe-orient” part of the OODA Loop until much too late in the game. When you’re out in the world and doing your daily activities, play the “what if?” game. Ask yourself, “what if a dog attacked me right now – what would I do?” Or, “what if there was a bad guy hiding behind that wall?” More mundane stuff is fair game, too – “what if my hydration bladder sprung a leak right now?” Being prepared for trouble before it strikes and deciding in advance on your initial responses dramatically shortens your reaction time.
The honest truth is, most of the time the world is a relatively safe place, especially compared to much of human history. And it might be that your chance of being attacked by a dog while out for a walk is, statistically, pretty small. But the numbers and odds will be of no comfort if you’re the one in a million it happens to. Stay aware, stay safe, and you’ll be able to have more fun with less stress.
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