Walking the dog

My best friend in the world – the love of my life – is a hairy, thick-jawed nudist with terrible table manners and a penchant for throwing all the blankets off the bed. His name is Clark (after Superman – this is Cleveland, after all!) and he’s a two year old pitbull mix.

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He came into my life last November, after a vicious sexual assault left me terrified of the dark, exhausted from night terrors and barely able to function. My mom, who had experienced her own guardian angel in the form of our late dog Luke, knew that having a canine companion would probably help beyond measure, and within a few weeks, we were at City Dogs Cleveland to find a furever friend. Standing in that dark, loud place, ringing with cries of desperation, I looked into his deep, intelligent eyes and knew I’d found a truly special soul.

From the moment he leaned into my arms at the shelter, we have been inseparable; my mom teasingly calls him my “doggelganger” from the fact that we are eerily alike in temperament. Both of us are extreme cuddlers, and we both are equally happy lazing around the house or exploring Cleveland’s gorgeous MetroParks. It’s a match made in doggy heaven.

Like any good relationship, we have grown into better beings through the lessons we learn together. Because of our work, I have taken to calling part of my spiritual practice “walking the dog.”

Pitbulls are renowned for their strength, which comes from their thickly muscled frames. At just 50 pounds, Clark can topple a full-grown man when he does his “army crawl:” putting his shoulders down and pulling forward with all his might. As such, a major part of our lessons together has been learning to walk well on his leash. 

At first, I was incredibly frustrated. I thought, as one might, that dogs naturally understand what it means to walk on a leash: after all, we have been living together for 15,000 years, right? Surely that pull on their necks must tell them that they have to walk nicely by their person’s side. For months I thought Clark was simply being bull-headed and didn’t want to listen to me. I would yank and yank, and he would weeze at the end of his nylon tether, pulling harder (if that were possible), sounding like a chain-smoking donkey reaching for a Nutter Butter.

Then, at the end of my rope, I decided to read some animal behavior articles, in hopes that I would better understand what was happening with my best friend. I learned not only that the strain of pulling on a collar can hurt a dog’s neck, but that dogs must be taught what walking on a leash means – it’s not instinctual. Just like going to the toilet outside or not barking at the mailman, this is simply another lesson of cohabiting nicely with humans that each dog must learn at his or her own pace.

When I read this, the anger and frustration I felt during each walk faded. I began to feel compassion for my fuzzy ball of energy and considered how would feel if I was taken outside twice a day, set free to explore all the wonderful smells and sounds and sights of nature, and then constantly yanked back and screamed at for what seemed like no reason at all. Putting myself in my dog’s place, I realized that how I was training him – saying “No!” and pulling on the leash – wasn’t working, and instead was creating resentment and anger for both of us.

To walk the dog, then, I had to learn to walk myself. I had to learn the qualities of patience, calmness, and leadership that would show Clark what I wanted from him in a way that he would understand. I had to communicate with him through my body and appreciate his desires and needs, rather than think that he would naturally understand what I wanted just because I wanted him to.

Our training is slow, and perhaps it looks strange to people who see us on the street. When Clark pulls too hard on the leash, I stop. At first, I count to ten seconds, and then we start again. He will keep pulling, and I will keep stopping. Sometimes, he will pull so hard that I will simply plop down on the ground, as if he’s dropped me there. With time, he has come to learn that pulling means stopping rather than going. If he wants to continue his walk, he must keep the tension in the leash to a minimum, meaning that he must pay attention to where we are in relation to one another. We become a system, a constellation of bodies, rather than a battleground of conflicting desires.

Working this training with Clark has taught me that there are many other times in my life when I must “walk the dog.” When am I pulling too hard on others, or on myself? When must I stand my ground by stopping when others want me to move ahead?

There is another benefit to our work, which is the incredible value of realizing his potential and celebrating his successes. Each walk is a new opportunity to develop his skills – and mine – in patience and restraint. Sometimes it seems as if he’s forgotten all that we’ve learned, either because it’s been a few days since we walked or because he’s too excited, but these times of deepest frustration often serve as the strongest bonding moments between us. He never truly loses ground, and this reminds me that I, too, never really forget the lessons I’ve learned in my own healing.

I challenge you to “walk the dog” in your own spiritual and therapeutic practice by cultivating patience and standing your ground. What might you learn through waiting a moment? What will you gain through staying still?

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” – Buddha

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