Some of my happiest childhood memories involve dog walking. In those days it was multiples of shelties around the village where I grew up. Then, as a young adult, I walked with Patch, my rescued border collie with whom I enjoyed twice daily beach walks. A decade later, it was Ben – another rescue – this time a mongrel, who looked like a golden collie cross with Samoyed eyeliner!
More recently I have walked with a growing ‘family’ of other people’s dogs, small, huge, young, old, playful, fearful or full of the joy of life. Dog walking is an integral part of my job and as such, it is a skill that I have subjected to the scrutiny of “professional development.” Some people might say that walking a dog isn’t a skill at all, and yet I note with interest that the most frequent training request I receive is to stop the dog(s) pulling on the lead. That said, this post isn’t really about the practical nuts and bolts of dog walking. It’s more about the art of walking and specifically about a dog called Marcus.
Marcus entered my life as a dog that I was employed to walk with him for an hour, four days a week. It took him less than a week of solo walks (just he and I) to completely change my walking worldview. As I sit here typing, I am pretty sure that Marcus would think me very rude for not introducing him properly. He’s a beautiful 10-year-old golden retriever, who knows his own mind and how to communicate to those who will listen. He’s strong, and stubborn and almost certainly has some royal blood somewhere in his ancestry!
The main thing you need to know about Marcus is that not only do I love the core of him, but I ‘get’ him at some fundamental level. I learned very quickly to observe his detail – and in that detail, he taught me where I was going wrong. You see, I have always approached dog walking as me walking the dog(s). I set out with a plan: a route, a timeline, an expectation, all of which were mine. I never thought to ask the dogs what they wanted, indeed I never really considered that they might tell me if I stopped long enough to ‘listen’. Marcus plucked a question out of the ether and dropped it at my feet, then promptly sat, hopefully waiting for a treat for his efforts.
“Whose walk is it anyway?”
And I had to admit, without any question – it was his.
Marcus owned his walks. He had a plan, a route, a timeline and an expectation (that I should follow along happily) and I saw in him the opportunity to learn how to really walk dogs. Day by day he showed me a better way, a listening way, a responding way, and mostly now he decides and I go along for the pleasure of his company.
Then I noticed something staggering happening; Marcus changed. He lost his slow steadiness and stopped being an arthritic 10-year-old. He trotted rather than walked, until one day he decided that a canter might be more fitting for one so young at heart. He chose to climb and run and even (finally) to play with other dogs. It was as though he had bought into the fact that life begins at… well… at that moment when you decide to grab it by the throat and own it.
Of course, for me, Marcus walks have become adventures. And Marcus is routinely “naughty” these days, if by that we mean investigative, getting into scrapes, becoming selectively deaf with his head in a rabbit hole or finding the muddiest, smelliest water for miles around and plodging right in. And would I trade it for a return to the sedate ‘goodness’ of his early walks? Not in a million years! Marcus is joyful these days and in some small way, I know that has something to do with me, just as I am joyful when I am around him.
And just in case you think it’s just a Marcus/Alison thing, it’s not. I have taken what he has taught me and applied it to dog walking with very different dogs, each of whom is entirely individual and equally able to own their walk, given the opportunity to be ‘heard’. Joey likes to smell the world and take his time and drink in the history of every lamp post or clump of grass. Rosie delights in engagement with other dogs or focused people-games. Baxter wants the ball and the trail of a cat. Zac wants you to create a world that is safe and dog free, and spacious. And Ruffles wants it all: dogs, people, rabbits, sprinting, treats, smells, the world, the universe!