by RENEE SKUDRA
It happened again today while attempting to walk our Bichon Frise, Jackson, at a farmer’s market when a woman in a blue, oversized UNC-Chapel Hill jacket, heading towards us, bellowed out “Who’s walking the dog? Looks like he’s walking you!” What felt like a small headwind on a Winnie-the-Pooh-type blustery day was blowing, and our boy momentarily stopped, frozen in high relief by a blast of light from an overhead sun. Giving the speaker a critical once-over and then gathering all his huge, white fluffy coat into a mighty concentrated ball he shook himself, brashly, beautifully and disdainfully looking down his nose, throwing the person a dismissive glance. Jackson unapologetically and irrefutably had let the world know our secret characterological issues – HE was the alpha animal in the pack. Throwing my head back, I responded to the Chapel Hill matron “The Dog walks us.” “Well, I can see that!” she blurted out, not content to let go of the animal’s recalcitrant behavior. “He’s running the show! You need to see a professional trainer to get his behavior under control.”
An outing to pick up a couple of chocolate croissants had turned into a veritable inquisition ripe with weighty philosophical implications. Were my son and I bad people simply because we had not mastered the art of walking the dog? Even after watching a ton of “The Dog Whisperer” television shows with Cesar Millan expounding numerous ways to get you and your dog to “live your best lives together,” it seems that all that advice had effectively fallen on deaf ears. More’s the shame if you factor in the situation that Jackson is a licensed service dog (although even on a good day we are not necessarily sure what service he is providing). Adding salt to the wound, hours later, another good samaritan contributes to the problem at Wake Forest University. Sporting a Virginia Tech hat, she runs by screaming raucously, voice heavy with sarcasm, “looks like that dog is walking you!” “He is!” I yell, the color climbing into my cheeks. Jackson, nonplussed, continues to drag us across the campus, moving with great pomp and ceremony, indisputably in charge of the afternoon constitutional.
When we finally made our getaway, I tell Jackson “you and I are going to have a talk. I’m the boss here!” He gives me the side-eye and what appears to be the verbal equivalent of a “whatever….” I understand that I am not being taken seriously. The Winston-Salem general public is now privy to the fact that our family has “psychological issues” as my friend, the therapist, would say, incontestably manifested in our dog’s unruly and reactive behavior. The fact that my son and I have three advanced degrees between us suddenly seems meaningless in promulgating our efficacy as good and venerable dog parents.
When I get home, I jump on the internet, searching for the name of a good trainer, someone knowledgeable, compassionate and firm in their ideology as to how to transform the dog/human interactions from one big, hot mess into a serene and excellently modulated “I’m in control of my pet” situation. A meeting with a local trainer, however, was not fruitful. Forcefully, she proclaims, her voice censorious and heavy with judgment, “that dog is walking you! C’mon lady, get this situation under control! This is not a healthy scene here!” I respond miserably “he’s a rescue from the shelter! We don’t know anything about his past.” This did not stop her umbrage. “I don’t care about his past; we are talking about his PRESENT!” she says with some viciousness, her eyes apoplectic, hitting me upside the head with unregulated venom. Tears in my eyes, I walk away, the clearly failed pet parent, embarrassed and emotionally unmoored.
Hoping to lift our spirits, my son and I drive to Salem Lake where the dog will undoubtedly once again walk us. We are solemn, the sting of previous negative commentaries still fresh. A light rain begins. The sun, still high above, illuminates our path, its light reverberating through the drizzled geography. A comment from the poet, Paul Valery, enters my mind: “Le vent se leve, il faut tenter de vivre” (“The wind is rising! We must try to live.”). Like my dog, I share a French heritage. Jackson, in the meantime, is sitting on a large cobblestone, intently contemplating a nearby squirrel. “Let’s go!” I say, and this time, unbelievably, without argument, he jumps up and walks in perfect conformation, by my side, in perfect rhythm and harmony, not pulling on the leash, almost as if we are a single being in perfectly nuanced and configured motion; and, for one inexplicable moment, at least, surrendering the posture of the Alpha dog he has grown to be.