“Rabies is your biggest risk,” my travel doctor said in a serious tone of voice.
“Rabies,” I responded with surprise. A pharmaceutical-sponsored map of the world’s malaria hotspots hung on the wall behind him, suggesting in bold red that malaria would be my biggest threat in India. Or even some random tropical disease like chikungunya. But rabies, I never would have thought.
“You’re at greater risk because you’ll be spending a lot of time in rural areas and going for a long time,” he said. He then explained the excessive cost of that vaccination and told me I shouldn’t bother getting it despite a 10 percent rabies infection rate. “Be aggressive,” he said, raising his voice to make an impression. “And carry a stick!”
I walked out of the office pensive and slightly confused at the conflicting information. There are tons of strays in India, 10 percent of which have this potentially lethal disease, yet he advised me not to get the vaccination. He probably just assumed I was broke and didn’t have a spare $600 lying around or maybe he just exaggerated the infection rate to get me to take the threat seriously. He obviously didn’t know about my fear of dogs.
I’ve had four dog encounters since childhood—twice bitten, twice chased while bike riding, one of those chases caused me to flip over and bang myself up. Luckily, I’d already booked my flight so there was no point dwelling on my fear. I’d been wanting to take this trip for years. This was my time, so I went.
On my flight from Delhi to Leh, in India’s northernmost Ladakh region, I sat beside an adventurous Danish woman named Pia. We shared a cab from the airport to the city.
After what the travel doctor told me, I had an idea, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The dogs ruled the streets. Some lay sprawled out in the shade of buildings while others roamed around pawing through the goop-lined gutters for breakfast. At this point in the early morning it seemed the dogs even outnumbered the people.
One day while returning from a day hike in the mountains, two dogs ran at me from a distance of about 200 yards, barking a loud warning that I was encroaching on their territory. I quickly diverted my path towards the far side of the village I was staying at, eventually making it back to my guesthouse where I met Pia for dinner. I related the dog encounter to her, still feeling a buzz of adrenaline.
“Do you have a fear of dogs?” she inquired.
I paused for a moment to reflect before answering. “Strays and feral dogs, yes. Pet dogs, no,” I responded, explaining how I’ve gotten better around dogs since childhood encounters first established that fear in me.
“I know that I have to show more love towards dogs though,” I added. Putting that sentiment into words made concrete what I’d known for awhile. I had to direct good, loving energy towards dogs. To truly love them, not just as a means of getting over my fear.
This fear of dogs has followed me throughout my 34 years of life. It’s irrational and I know that my fear has caused at least some of the dog encounters. My mind has never been able to solve the problem, but on this occasion my heart intuitively knew what to do—loving-kindness meditation—and I started that very night.
This Buddhist meditation, also known as metta, is intended to radiate love to all beings first by focusing on the self, then on three separate entities: disliked, neutral, and liked. I chose dogs as the object of my dislike, visualizing them being happy, running around and playing, eating well, and enjoying their lives. I continued these meditations nightly.
A couple of weeks after that dog encounter I was sitting at the Gesmo bakery in Leh doing some journaling when Pia walked in.
“How was your trek?” I asked, excited to hear about her time in the mountains.
“I didn’t go. I got bit by two dogs,” she calmly said, pulling up her floral patterned dress to reveal massive bite marks on her leg. “I had to get the rabies vaccinations, which are giving me nausea and making me feel really bad.”
Shocked and in disbelief, I imparted some general words of consolation. I felt like I was the one who should have gotten bitten, not her. She seemed pretty fine with dogs and even helped me see the importance of not fearing them. The strangest thing about this whole occurrence was that she walked in right as I was writing about the same dog encounter that she had helped me through. Bizarre. I went back to writing, reflecting through journaling how, if at all, any of this made sense.
I continued my determined effort at loving-kindness meditation every night. This incident with Pia only strengthened my resolve. It seemed I had more fear of dogs than her, yet I was spared—an occurrence I fully attributed to the loving-kindness.
The following month brought three more dog incidents. On two occasions I just got barked at while walking by dogs on the street; a loud “down” and a wave of my arm was enough to get them to back off, but the third was a different story altogether.
I needed to travel from my village to Leh, so I decided to forgo the bus this time and hike instead. The trip started out well. I set a bearing and walked directly over the flat moon-like desert surface, then up into the hills and into the mountains that surrounded Leh. As I neared the city, the route wound through a trash-lined valley. As I walked, the garbage grew from a few specks here and there to massive mounds of paper and plastic junk. I turned a bend in the valley, hopelessly trying to admire the gleaming Himalayan sandstone underneath the heaps of garbage when I heard a torrent of crazed barking. A dozen junkyard dogs sprinted towards me from 300 yards, barking a warning at me to get off their turf—their dump home and source of food. I unzipped my bag and yanked out my pepper spray, then bent down to pluck a few stones. I quickly reversed directions, constantly looking over my shoulder as I returned the way I came. The fact that I didn’t make it into the city that day didn’t matter. I was just thankful to come out of the incident unscathed.
I had a lot of contemplation time on that full-day hike. Not long after that incident, I moved dogs into the neutral category in my loving-kindness meditations. If I held onto the past, I would have had a reason to continue disliking them, but I really didn’t want to get stuck in that rut anymore, so I let it go.
Some say that through repeated exposure to a person, the heart grows fonder. I believe that the same can be said of anything. During the day, dogs are a constant sight in India. And at night a soundtrack of dog barking relentlessly plays in the background. They’re everywhere. It’s as if I had no choice but to love them. And I did. Just last week I moved dogs into the liked category of my meditations.
The loving-kindness has been working. After four dog encounters in my first five weeks in India, I haven’t had so much as a single bark directed at me in the two months since.
On my walk home last night, I looked into the sad eyes of a homeless brown, furry dog. I no longer felt the same mix of distrust and sympathy that I felt for the scruffy, flea-infested strays that I previously saw, but a fondness for them. The balance shifted from sympathy to empathy. Though he may have had “wild” rabies that could trigger a crazy streak in him, I didn’t feel he was out to hurt me. I looked in his eyes and saw something different. I saw love, and I felt love for him. I no longer have anything to fear because I now love dogs. For this transformation in consciousness I thank loving-kindness.