My dogs have all loved to run off-leash. Living in the city, the opportunities to do so are few and far between — and are often stolen at odd hours or in what most people would call “bad weather” so as to avoid being caught and fined. The Golden Retrievers in my life loved to stretch their legs and run for the sheer joy of it. My Coyote, though, could simply never believe she was untethered, having spent her previous life chained to a post. Of the three dogs who have graced my adult life, she has always been the most grateful for that small freedom.
As Coyote has grown weaker in her illness, I’ve started walking her up and down the street without a leash, knowing that she is too sick to run away and believing that I was doing her a kindness by allowing her to make her careful way without the tug of the leash on her collar. From time to time, I’ve caught her suddenly jerk to attention, seeking me out, so I’ve stayed relatively close and within her narrowing range of sight, thinking that was enough.
Tonight’s walk gave me a different perspective. As we rounded the corner in front of my house, Coyote stumbled over the crumbling road surface. She hesitantly struggled over the rough spot and continued unsteadily on for a few steps before stopping and gazing up at me, tremors running through her poor old body. She seemed to want to lean on me, and I thought, I wonder if she feels lost.
“Do you want your leash?” I asked her. She dragged a few, insecure steps toward me. “Would it help you if you had your leash, baby girl?” I closed the tiny gap between us, and she stretched her neck out in that familiar gesture that, for more than a decade, has signaled she wanted me to clip her leash to her collar for a walk. Only, now, there was another layer of meaning: I need to feel attached to you. I feel unsafe without my moorings.
We walked on for the short way her paws will still carry her, and I noticed that when she stumbled or when her hind paw clubbed up because her brain can’t command it consistently anymore, she would glance up, leaning into her end of her leash so she could feel me on my end. Sometimes, if the leash hung too loosely, she would cast about with her head, relaxing only when she felt certain I had hold of her.
And at the end of our walk, once we were safely in the yard, I unclipped the leash, as is our habit, and tried to coax her into following me up the hill to the house. She froze in place, waiting for the reassurance of my touch on her back to guide her across the yard and up the path.
To keep her connected to me. To guide her home.