Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Tie That Binds

Loki waits for me at the door, ready for our evening walk. He knows that's what we're about to do, because I just told him. He may not understand everything I say, but he knows when we are going for a walk.

He sits by the door, waiting for me to put his leash on. Sometimes, as I clip the red lead to his collar, I wonder if he resents it. After all, he loves to run on ahead whenever he's allowed to go for a walk without it. But, if he resents it, he certainly doesn't show it. In fact, it's pretty clear to me that he sees the leash for what it is: a means of communication.

When we first started walking together our communication skills were rather poor. Loki always wanted to go faster than I preferred to, or stop to smell something just when I had my walking pace set. He was forever tugging forward or or pulling backward. I was never really sure how to make it work, or for that matter, if we ever would. It seemed like I was only using the leash to forcibly restrain him. The rule, not the exception, was for him to constantly strain at the end of the lead, anxious for me to either pick up the pace or let him go.

Now that has changed. Of course there are moments when he has to be restrained a bit. Sometimes, his constant, in-the-moment way of being leads to a sudden lunge or stop, but increasingly, these moments are rare.

A walk today is a far different one that it was when Loki was a puppy. He no longer lunges ahead, or even strains the leash. I hold the loop in one hand and take up the slack with the other. There is no tension on the leash at all. Granted, I do have a pretty fast walking pace, but Loki has learned not just to slow down, but to pick up on just how fast I am walking and match that.

What has changed? Is it him or me?

Obviously, it is a bit of both. We are both a little older and a little wiser, especially about the role of the leash.

The leash, we both have come to realize, is more than a means of control. It is a symbol, not of my dominance over Loki, but of our partnership. When we go out for the walk, the lead is our most direct way of communicating.

This is sort of like the cheap walkie-talkies my brother and I shared growing up. They were useful for communicating within earshot only and we could never be sure if it was the walkie-talkie or just the sound coming through the air. While I can't be sure if it's just Loki taking his visual cues better as he gets older and wiser, it sure seems like there is some communication going on between us, and it seems to be happening literally via the leash.

I know this because there is a reciprocal element at work. That is, Loki senses how fast I want to walk but I sense the same from him. Somehow, we compromise. Sometimes, we go a little faster than I'd prefer, but not as fast as Loki would like. Sometimes when he wants to stop, I just know it and don't have to wait for him to jerk at the lead in order to get a good long sniff of something.

Human arrogance might lead me to think that the difference between now and then would be Loki. After all, he's grown up and has learned how to handle the leash. But I have to admit that I have changed too. I have learned how to hold the leash. What I once perceived as an instrument of control I see now as a means of communication.

And, what I am communicating is not what I want him to do, but quite simply, my state of mind. When I am relaxed, Loki can feel that. When I am willing to walk faster, Loki can feel that. When he wants to stop and smell something, I can feel that. When we come to a curb and I come to a stop to look both ways, he too comes to a stop and sits at my heel.

Now, Loki's learned a lot about what we expect from him, not just when he's leashed but also when he's not. Likewise, I have learned a lot about what he expects from me, especially when we are tied together by that lead.

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