There is something deeply redemptive about walking a dog. It’s not that I feel in particular need of absolution, or anything, but like paying off a mortgage, every little bit counts. Just the feel of the empty leash in your hand, the wind in your hair and the little recyclable compost bag in your pocket in case you get caught is truly freeing -not to mention exhilarating.
I’m fortunate to live near a forest that is almost empty of decorum, so neither I nor my dog pay much heed to protocol. Not for us the urban fences and posted restrictions; we roam the trails like pioneers, exulting in the freedom to do whatever we wish, as long as nobody is watching. My job, of course, is to make sure.
I often walk with a friend for extra eyes –my dog is old and sometimes gets confused if she happens upon a scent that beckons more seductively than my own. Deaf, cataract-laden, and hip-restricted, I should probably be taking her in a wheelchair, but some of the trails are not equal-opportunity accessible. And anyway, she seems to enjoy padding along behind, engrossed in an olfactory experience those of us with clothes have long ago eschewed.
But there is an awkward moment of encounter at least once on any trail when I am asked her name. I know people are just being polite; I know they are really asking me to ask them their dog’s name so they can show off some clever celebrity sobriquet. But, even though I am now retired and expected to immerse myself in a popular culture I am too old to understand -the culture I am relegated to appreciate by proxy, I suppose- I do not enjoy the thrill of surrogate intimacy with the rich and famous.
I was by trade, a gynaecologist, and I fear my epithetical leanings are definitely gynaecological. So, in the case of my dog, I am constantly confronted with the need to explain the embarrassing anatomical coordinates of the name. The same with my cat, actually, but it saved me undo mortification by running away. As you read this, it is probably in protective custody somewhere, living under an alias. But to each her own. My dog seems to like her name, and back when her ears worked, actually perked them up when I called.
My friend, however, seems convinced that she is suffering from a type of psychological stress-deafness akin to Freud’s hysteria. Either that or, I am assured, she just ignores me in the throes of humiliation. I honestly don’t know why I continue to walk with this person.
I’ve kind of solved the deafness issue, though. Although she can’t hear me yelling at her, there are politer solutions on offer -loud whistling, for example. While I can do a fair, albeit rather sibilant, rendition of the first few bars of Ode to Joy, and have, on occasion, won praise for my thrilling, but unrecognizable version of Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C# minor, I am congenitally unable to produce anything louder than a soft hiss in the whistle department -certainly nothing that would command any attention, let alone respect. I did try one of those dog whistles in a pet store. The sign said it was supposed to use a higher frequency than humans can detect, and I couldn’t hear a thing when I blew it. I took that as a good sign. Mind you, my hearing is not what it used to be either, and I can certainly sympathize with presbycusis in the dog. Still… it didn’t do what the sign assured me it wouldn’t, so I bought it. Unfortunately, the first time I used it, my friend claimed it was both audible and painful, so I had to put it in my pocket. I still bring it with me, however, because although the dog can’t hear it, I figure it might come in handy if my friend wanders off.
The method I find myself using to attract the dog’s increasingly apparent attention deficit disorder, is the clap. Not to be confused with the dated, and highly derogatory alias for the condition that used to get you sent to the nurse’s office in high school, I am referring to the simple, yet forceful meeting of the hands. The dog seems to respond to clapping, although to get her attention, it has to be repetitive -as if I were applauding something terribly interesting in the trees that nobody else can see. People nearby avert their eyes as they approach, or scan the woods in search of the performing squirrel or wind ensemble that may be hidden somewhere they hadn’t noticed. I usually try to explain as they hurry past, but like the apocryphal tree falling in the forest when nobody is around, I get the distinct impression they’d rather not hear it.
I have recently come to the reluctant conclusion that my dog is entering a phase of cognitive decline, however. I see in her bouts of decision paralysis, hints of doggie dementia. She will, on occasion, sniff the same rock twice, as if she’s forgotten the olfactory message and her own contribution to the gestalt. She seems perfectly happy with the result, and I suppose I shouldn’t read too much into it, but as a fellow mammal, I worry. It’s a cross cultural thing, I guess.
Confusion is a big issue in a society based on obedience like ours. It is imperative that you know who to obey for a start –the rule of law depends on it. And it’s no different for a dog. Befuddlement is probably the heaviest weight I have to carry –not mine, you understand, although my friend sometimes has to fetch me if I wander off the trail thinking I see my car in the bushes. But that’s just when I’m tired and I don’t think dogs can use the same excuse. So when she disappears, I worry it is because her GPS is broken and not, like in my case, that she has just forgotten to turn it on.
I take her deficit personally too, because I see it on the menu for us all. And if, in some uncharted time ahead, I should happen to wander off down another trail, or follow someone strange thinking it is myself, I hope my keepers will not be unduly distressed, or feel I have betrayed their trust. As with my dog, I hope they will be patient with my errant ways. And in the end, if clapping doesn’t work, there’s always the leash.