Maisie and I are out on the trail on a blindingly bright and bitterly cold Saturday afternoon. There is fresh snow on the ground and the sky is a perfect, pale Iowa blue, with not even a hint of a cloud. We wander off the trail and walk through our community orchard to a snow-blanketed meadow. Under the snow, there is a rough, mowed trail that gets very little traffic, even in the spring and summer, and because of this fact, among other things, I contemplate letting her be free for a bit.
Maisie has spent precious little time since coming to live with us off the leash, with the exception of running free within the confines of the dog park. But it feels somehow unnatural for her always to be tethered to me, so I take a deep breath and unhook the leash from her harness. She looks at me for barely half a second and then she is off.
At first she stays close by and I watch her bound and pounce, looking like some rare crossbreed of rabbit and deer, hopping haphazardly in the snow-covered trail. Periodically she shoves her entire face into little tiny snow banks, diving in after something that I cannot see nor smell. Finally, she stops for a moment and I realize I have completely disappeared from her world; her ears are pitched forward and she is standing straight and tall, every muscle of her being on high alert. And then she bolts, tearing up the hill with everything she has. All I can see are her little hind legs kicking the snow back as she flies up and away from me.
I am wearing my purple polka dot boots, which are great for keeping your feet very warm and very dry, but they have virtually no traction and are fairly dreadful for anything that might resemble running. Particularly on a trail with several inches of fresh, untouched snow on it. I take off after her anyway, calling her name and trying not to panic. I am running, awkward and ungraceful, up the hill after her, when I spot her in the distance. I call to her and she comes flying back down to me. I instantly reward her with her favorite treat (boiled chicken gizzards) and she takes off again.
This time, she bounds off the trail into the snow-covered meadow. Light brown, tall, reedy grasses are poking up everywhere out of the brilliant white snow. Maisie is snow-white with light brown markings. She is tiny and low to the ground. Within seconds I have lost sight of her. She is completely camouflaged. I am calling her and calling her, but she either does not hear me or she hears me and is completely ignoring me. I suspect it is the latter.
At the point I realize I have only the vaguest notion of where she is and that I haven’t a chance of ever running fast enough to catch her even if I could see her, I slow down and just walk. I banish thoughts about losing my dog and remind myself to trust her, to trust our relationship, to trust that she doesn’t need to be glued to my side. This thought process is only moderately successful, though, because every time I catch a glimpse of her romping through the snow, I start calling her name again and again. Because it has worked so well all the other times.
Maisie is my second dog and she is nothing like my first dog. The first time I took Henry, my first dog, off the leash, we were on a trail just north of the tiny Colorado ranching community we called home. He was barely a few months old and he never got more than a few feet away from me, turning around to look back at me every few seconds, just to make sure I was still there. And Henry never really veered away from that behavior. He was always right next to me, in town and on the trails, and then on the city streets when we moved to Seattle, leashed or not. When we finally had our own house in Iowa, with our own backyard, I had to practically push him off the deck to go pee without me.
I’ve missed having that freedom of walking a dog without the constant leash battle and I feel a twinge of envy every time I see a photo of someone’s dog running free through the woods or a mountain meadow. I’ve thought often about how to work with Maisie off-leash. She is a good little dog, eager to please, and comes when I call her, every time, at the dog park. But at the dog park she is restricted by that fence and there is very little competing with me for her attention. Will, our trainer, and I did a session off leash and she was great, never going very far from us and coming when we called. He seemed to think she was good to go. He also warned me that as good as she was, there would be times when she wouldn’t come right away and I had to be okay with that.
And I trusted that I would be okay with that, but she scared the devil out of me when my husband and I were down in Missouri to play some concerts this past fall. We had been in the car for several hours when we arrived at our destination at a beautiful property deep in the Ozarks. We met our hosts and a few early guests and my husband began unloading our gear. Free from the dangers of traffic, I let her off the leash. Within an instant she took off down the trail on this thousand acre property, nothing around but woods and more woods and then still more woods. I took off after her, yelling and calling, running in flip-flops (why am I never wearing good foot wear when I have to run after my dog?) but of course I didn’t have a prayer of catching her. I’m sure we made a lovely first impression. While I was running down the trail after her, trying not to think about whether or not I would ever see her again, she was coming back around through the grass, circling back to me. I scooped her up in my arms and ever since that day, she has not been out without a leash attached to her.
That is until this snow-shiny day in January when Maisie and I are engaged in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse. In spite of her disappearing into the snow and tall grass, she keeps turning back up, sometimes running up behind me when I think I’m heading towards her. I figure out that she is more likely to come to me if I get down on one knee and open my arms, and she figures out that there is a treat in my hand when she does actually come to me. While we seem to be working through this off leash thing, I would not go so far as to say I’m relaxed about it. I’m still calling her more than is effective or probably necessary and I occasionally find myself muttering, “your father is going to kill me if I show up without you.” I’m also actually working up quite a massive sweat in spite of the single digit temperature, though whether it’s from fear or running in snow, I can’t exactly say.
At some point in our rambles around the meadow, she comes running down the hill to me and I decide my heart has had enough. I feed her the treat, grab her harness before she has a chance to run away again, and snap the leash back on her. Her tongue, speckled with mud, is hanging down to one side and she is panting like mad. She is covered in little burrs and sticky seeds and in spite of all the snow, she is filthy. She is a happy, beautiful mess. As we walk back towards the orchard, I realize that my heart must have been racing a little more than normal, because when she is once again secured to my side I feel my breathing start to slow, my chest start to relax, my shoulders drop a little.
It was so easy with Henry. He was so incredibly attached to me, there was never, ever a time I was uncomfortable with him off the leash. In fact the leash was really only a true necessity — as opposed to a municipal code necessity — as he got older and weaker, simply to keep him up on all fours. But Maisie, she’s just a different dog. Maybe it’s because she came to us as a two-year old dog, maybe it’s because she was one of many dogs and children and other animals at her other home. Whatever it is, she is decidedly more independent than Henry was, and that is a mixed blessing, the blessing part being that she seems considerably less bothered when she knows we are going somewhere without her, seems a little less neurotic, a little more emotionally bullet-proof.
We went back to the meadow every day that week, and we continue to do so when there’s time or it’s not too muddy — all that snow has since melted and left in its place wet, muddy grass — and sometimes even when it is too muddy. My husband even took her off leash up there on his own (which he swore he would never do).
Each time I let her go free, I experience a little bit of an adrenaline rush, wondering if she’ll still stay relatively close, but each time it also gets a little easier to trust her. I’ve taken now to just walking the loop around the meadow, making a general note of where she is, but not trying to find her or call her, just trusting that she will check in with me periodically. And she does, actually considerably more than when I was panicked and calling her and chasing after her.
I always reward her with a treat when she comes back to me. I always make her sit and stay, make her watch me, until I release her again. And she is really good once she is by my side, even if she still doesn’t really come when I call her; the world around her is far more interesting, after all. But when she does happen to run to me, I will repeatedly say “come” so she associates that word with that behavior and, more importantly, with a piece of chicken gizzard. And while she hasn’t exactly learned to obey that most important command, she never gets very far from me, and so I am relaxing into our little time in the meadow.
Each time she takes off, flying as fast as she can, up that hill and away from me, I get to learn about trust. I remind myself that Maisie isn’t trying to escape, she isn’t trying to make a jail break from me, from us, from our home. She is so clearly attached to both of us, to our sweet little family, our close-knit pack of three. But she is a feisty little thing. She loves to run and explore and play and see the world, even if it is only the world of a small meadow. And I love to see her happy, see her in her element, expressing her truest self when she is bounding through the field, shoving her entire face in the snow, and running as fast as those little legs will carry her.
And I suppose that’s what love is all about: giving someone the freedom to be one hundred percent who they are, trusting that your loved one doesn’t have to be glued to your side in order to stay by your side. It’s about finding a way for independence and interdependence to ride side by side in the getaway car, flying free and flying far.
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So lovely readers, how do you balance freedom and attachment, concern for your pet’s well-being with their need to be who they are? Do you err on the side of caution or are you more likely to take a chance? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment in the section below.
Thanks to Henry David Thoreau, for letting me use his words in my title.