Pit bulls, bad knees and neighborliness: what price personal safety?

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When psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with his hierarchy of human needs, he said humans value personal safety, which includes food, shelter and other things needed for survival, above all other things. Politicians bank on this idea, promising in various ways to meet this first of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I have never disputed it, but felt that I had moved way up the hierarchy to its ultimate, self-actualization. That was before my knee blew out.

I am in the top 5 percentile height and weight-wise, and have only feared for my personal safety when people approached me with guns, something that has happened too often for my taste. Neither have I feared dogs, having grown up with them and having had a 90-pound Akita living in my house. That all changed recently when my neighbors had the wisdom to buy a pit bull puppy and let it play outside with their young children, even in their absence.

When it was a young puppy I would play with it to get acquainted. It didn’t have to get very old before it changed its attitude toward me. A few days ago my knee went out with what I know is a torn meniscus cartilage, having had the same experience 20 years ago with its twin. One doesn’t forget that feeling.

Shot full of anti-inflammatories I was working in the garage, carefully, when the dog raced in and adopted the aggressive posture dog lovers do not associate with play. The dog was between me and all my long-handled tools. The neighbor’s young children were home alone and had no influence on the dog, except to lure it away, whereupon I closed the garage door, very frightened by my diminished physical abilities to deal with the threat.

Now came the ethical question: what should I do given that a dog of a known aggressive breed had just challenged me in my own garage, and was loose in the street with the young children of its owners? I asked the children if either of their parents were home, and they said no. I called the police who efficiently handled the problem. Did this make my neighbors happy? No, it did not. What would you have done? I teach peacemaking, so should be good at this kind of thing.

The wife of the neighbor household rang my bell and shrieked at me for a while. She was very unhappy that I had informed the authorities that she had left young children unattended, never mind the pit bull, which was very loving, she said.

So now what? The next morning another neighbor informed me that someone had stuffed a potato up the tailpipe of the car we park in the driveway. It was harder than one might think to remove. A sprinkler head was also broken off, but that happens all the time.

How can one deal with such everyday problems? Courses in conflict resolution break things down so neatly, with no consideration for the surrounding issues or personalities. In this case it would certainly have been best for me to speak with the neighbors about the dog’s increasingly aggressive tendencies. That not being immediately possible, what was my duty to the rest of my neighbors? I chose to protect the rest of my neighbors at the risk of harming the relationship with this particular household. I don’t say that gladly, because it assumes approval of my choice.

Conflict resolution is all about choice, the choice to wait for the right moment, the choice of when to use outside authority and the choice of when to act. We don’t sit in the clouds watching human events; we are part of the drama. We can train our impulses, we can learn about processes that work, but when it comes down to personal choices, we can’t be sure whether or not we are right. All we can do is prepare ourselves, and hope for the best.

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, M.Div, J.D., directs the graduate academic programs in peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University.

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