The shift has been a gradual one, each new step into trust a surprise. And sudden. It seems like we went from a way of being that I had begun to believe was permanent to this new freedom in the space of days.
Toby is almost three. He and I walk together almost every day, and our routine includes time off the leash where I know he'll be okay even if he opts for deafness and adventure over obedience and safety. He's such a headstrong dog, and I've assumed his primary motivation is scent and movement, which meant his connection to me would always be secondary.
The result has been that I was very careful about letting him loose anywhere there was risk of him being hurt if he wouldn't listen.
During our walks this summer, I noticed he would come back along the trail looking for me if it took me too long to catch up with him. Then I would find him stopped at the gates where I always leashed him up - stopped without being told. And finally one day he met me as I approached one of the gates and walked beside me until we reached it, all without my saying a word.
We've become a team, Toby and I. Not because I made him mind, or even because I trained him well - because in the last three years I let go of any expectation beyond keeping him safe and appropriately social. And I just loved him the way he was. I trusted him as far as he'd let me, but didn't demand more than I got.
He seems to be returning the affection and the trust.
Earlier this month, for the first time, I let him in the front yard to help me bring groceries in from the car. Because he chases anything that moves - squirrels, cars, shadows - he's only had limited access to this unfenced part of our place. He was so excited, he bounced like his favorite rubber ball, and never got more than five feet away from me. We've repeated this new routine several times now, and he's been the same every time, not once even considering the possibility of chasing.
I haven't taken him to the park since last winter because he was so hard to manage on the leash for that long distance. He pulled like a sled dog, with no concern at all for whether he could breathe or not. The condition of my shoulder wasn't even a concept for him.
But Sunday I knew there would be campers in our regular place, and it was a perfect day, so I decided to give the park another shot. And it worked. He was eager, but responsive to my voice and the tugs on the leash. When I let him off leash to swim in the river, he didn't try to run up the bank and into the park to make new friends. And he didn't seem to mind making do with the limits of leash and my pace as we finished the park loop.
Even with all of that, what happened yesterday took me by surprise. We were walking with our friend Mary and her Bernese Mountain Dog, Pearl. Toby and Pearl had not met before, and while not hostile with each other, both were more interested in their own sniffing agendas. At one point Mary let Pearl off leash, a regular part of their routine. So I let Toby off, too.
It was like we'd been doing this thing forever. He never got too far ahead. Came to me when I called. For a while walked along side me for reassurance after a romp and frolic with Pearl. At one point he veered up a trail toward the street, and my heart stopped because my warning didn't slow him down. But seconds later, he crashed his way back to the big trail and ran to me, then sat at my feet looking up as if to say, "That was so much fun. What's next?"
From the day we carried him into the house, Toby has been a reminder that control is an illusion. He's made it clear that life with him would not be business as usual. At some point I surrendered to that, to the unknown of our relationship, never expecting that I'd get this amazing lesson in trust.
And if I can trust that love and acceptance and surrender work with a dog, perhaps it's time to believe, to really embrace, that it works everywhere.
Photo by Walt
Photo by Walt