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Tammy Swift, Published October 12 2013

Swift: Bonding over canine companions melts away fears

One not-so-great aspect of my newly single status is an increased sense of vulnerability.

I definitely have become more paranoid now that I’m again on my own. I check and double-check my doors. I eye strangers and dark parking lots with suspicion. Never mind that when married, my then-husband traveled so much that I spent most of the week alone. Or that these solitary nights gave me lots of time to imagine those weird noises in the garage were actually a homicidal escapee from a nearby home for the criminally insane. (Obviously, I also spent too much watching the Chiller network.)

But my newfound independence has definitely bumped up my concern for my personal safety. Here’s a perfect example from a few weeks ago: I’m walking my dog behind Wal-Mart because I basically live on the edge of a wheat field and there’s nowhere else to go. So I’ve resorted to walking Kita either on a dirt road or on the surprisingly sumptuous and well-maintained lawn behind Wally World. Seriously, this is a lawn worthy of a pre-government-shutdown White House.

We are minding our business – Kita “marking” every blade of grass in a three-mile radius while I fumble to find a decent song on my iPhone.

Just then, a big truck pulls up from behind the big box store. I’m used to semis and trucks roaring by. This is Wal-Mart after all, and someone needs to feed our insatiable desire for Korean-made stereo equipment (is Painasonic really the same as Panasonic?) and Old Roy dog food.

But as the truck approaches me and my tiny dog, it squeals to a halt. I peer up into the cab, which seems almost completely filled by a large, menacing-looking, heavily bearded man. In a flash, my brain shifts into “stranger danger” mode. What did that college self-defense course I took 25 years ago say to do in this situation? Why was I not clutching my keys in my fist like brass knuckles? Why had I never bothered to learn the ancient Japanese art of Jiujitsu?

“This is it,” I think. “I’m about to get chased down by an 18-wheeling Leatherface. And it’s my fault because I opted for the cute dog – the tiny, adorable one who looked like a Japanese Pikachu character – rather than an 80-pound attack dog trained by ex-Navy SEALS at a mountaintop police academy.”

The truck-driver leans over with a big grin on his face. My throat tightens and my stomach sinks. Even Kita takes time out of her busy cricket-herding schedule to stand at attention.

“Yes?” I squeak in my unfriendliest, most suspicious, most passively aggressive voice.

Burly McWhiskerson slowly reaches over to his passenger’s seat to access what I’ve already assumed is a machete. He reaches down and holds up … the teensiest, most adorable, black-and-white Pomeranian puppy I’ve ever seen. It looks like a hamster in his giant hands. “See?” he crows with delight, motioning to Kita. “I’ve got one too!”

My fear melts like ice on a warm windshield. In a second, my brain shifts from “fight or flight” mode to “It’s all right” mode. We turn into a mutual-adoration society, oohing and aahing over each other’s ridiculously small canine companions. I haven’t uttered the word “cute” that much since attending my last baby shower.

We say goodbye. He roars off, waving happily into his rearview mirror, his charming, four-legged companion at his side.

So I learned several important lessons that day. Never assume. Even big, hairy dudes might have a soft spot for adorable toy dogs. And you can’t live your life in fear.

But as a single woman, you still have to pay attention to your surroundings and be careful out there.

Now excuse me while I go check the garage.

Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com