A Dog Moms Breakthrough

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I went to the off-leash dog park and here is why this was a personal breakthrough:

Bucharest, early 1980’s

There was one oval patch of grass in my city neighbourhood, surrounded by streets and traffic. I was walking with Mushi, an incredibly beautiful black Cocker Spaniel whose ears touched when they met over the tip of his nose; a bundle of energy and playfulness. I hadn’t trained Mushi at all – didn’t know how, and didn’t think it mattered. I wanted him to come when I called, but at 21 years old I somehow thought that a good recall depended on the dog, not on me. A dog Dad who walked his obedient dog at the same park liked to mock me calling my dog: “Mushi, would you please consider the possibility of coming over, if you don’t have something better to do, maybe?”

One day, a neighbour’s gate opened, and a playful German Shepherd bolted out of his backyard and onto the “doggiedrome”, our family’s nickname for the doggie park. I let go of Mushi’s leash to go play, but Mushi was only 10 months old and didn’t want to play with the fully-grown German Shepherd three times his size. Instead, he ran towards home, which was the other side of a busy road. I called his name and screamed, but that didn’t stop him from running. Mushi didn’t make it to the other side of that road.

Upon this loss, I went into a state of shock so intense, it caused my body to spontaneously bleed, like during a monthly cycle. The shock was followed by grief. Grief was followed by the resolve to train my dogs from then on, not as a luxury, but as a matter of life and death.

Ottawa, 2021

I drive towards Bruce Pit, with Tilly in my backseat, and my heart hurts with fear. It’s a physical ache. Today is the first time I take her to this large off-leash dog park by myself. I went there once with Joni, Tilly’s Auntie, who helped me not faint when Tilly ran out of sight. Today I’m going alone.

I had taken my previous dogs off-leash everywhere for many years: Kinook, the Akita-Chow girl who lived with me for fifteen years, whom I had trained extensively, and whose low-key temperament and good recall made our long walks and hikes relaxing and pleasurable. I went to the park with Carmen, my sweet Golden Retriever, who was a breeze to train, and as eager to please as a dog can get. She’d stick to me like velcro, and off we’d go trotting alongside each other.

“ … watching her threw me back in time to an old and painful memory: Mushi running home.”

When Tilly arrived in Canada from Nepal in mid-January this year, I learned she was highly energetic, loved to run, and had never been free to run off-leash before in her two years of young life. I began working on her recall, and as an experiment, let her off-leash a couple of times in parks that were not fenced. Tilly ran like a bullet unleashed from a gun, fast and far, and watching her threw me back in time to an old and painful memory: Mushi running home.

My heart shrunk in incredible pain, and I thought I was going to faint. What went in Tilly’s head was: “Freeeeeeedooooooom!” What went in my head was: “She’s going to the street and get hit by a car”. I had flashbacks of Mushi, and several times I was triggered to full-blown anxiety attacks.

Tilly is a self-evolved breed (The Pariah, or Pye, or Desi Dog), as half-wild as a Basenji. Unlike a Retriever, who is bred to please people, Tilly’s arrival to this world was genetically chosen by her parents and grandparents according to health and strength: pleasing humans was never a mating criterion (I wasn’t there, it’s merely an educated guess). As a result of this natural selection, Tilly is strong, thank goodness, and strong-willed too; she is sensitive, easily startled, impulsive (with a high prey-drive), smart, curious, and very, very fast.

And did I say “fast”?

Since January, I have only been able to relax with Tilly off-leash in people’s fenced backyards, at a small, fully-fenced dog park, and in an open park with another human for support. On-leash walks have been demanding, as my pace is andante and hers is allegro. Off-leash attempts in open spaces ended up in scares and heartache for me: real, physical chest pain.

A few days ago the acupuncture doctor stuck some very long needles in my chest and advised me to walk and move slowly.

“We’re working on strengthening our bond, and the trust between us.”

Today I went to the Bruce Pit dog park, a forested area with a perimeter that can be covered in an hour (less if you walk allegro or allegretto). I went alone. And Tilly ran. She ran, ran, ran, fast like a bullet, fast like an arrow, and she circled wide circles and went out of sight. And then she came back to me, every time. She checked in with me. I walked slowly, and she ran. And the pain in my chest subsided. I was able to relax my chest and my body, make small chats with other dog parents, and was able to trust Tilly to come back to me.

We’re still working on Tilly’s recall. We’re working on strengthening our bond, and the trust between us.

A small miracle… 

But today, a small miracle took place: today I healed an old, old wound that had shadowed my joy as a Dog Mom for Tilly. Today the young, strong, fast dog who ran, came back when I called, again and again, and we both made it home safely (well, one of us rolled in mud and had to be bathed, for the fourth time this week, but that’s okay, may my most serious problems be no more than this mud thing).

One way to deal with trauma is to avoid triggers whenever possible: “If there are monsters in that room, don’t go there”; but avoiding anything limits you from living fully. I prefer, whenever it’s possible, to face the pain and make amends – to do things better than before. This is what I did today, and got some relief, some hope, and a degree of freedom. It’s not an Everest climb kind of breakthrough, but for my heart, it’s good enough.