There are two ways to walk the dog. In one, our dog, George, picks the path. In the other, we do. This is an illusion he allows us. In truth, he controls both routes.
Our morning walk in the park is unfocused. George guides us by his nose—what he smells on the asphalt, the tree box, the grass. He doubles back. We double back with him. (We’ve already checked in with the morning paper; this is the way he catches up with the local news.) During these walks, my wife and I brief each other on the coming day. We solve each other’s puzzles. We update each other on the revelations we had in the night—about the kids, the apartment hunt, what to tell her mother about Christmas.
In the afternoon, and just before bed, we walk shorter distances. Left turn, two blocks, return. These utilitarian sprints give us owners a sense of control and the satisfaction that comes from completing a task. Humans Must Be Walked, the basic text for dogs managing their owners, advises at least two of these during the day.
In a life of busyness and ambushes on our attention, dog walks air out the brain. Sometimes they might seem like an inconvenience, but only in the way G. K. Chesterton defined inconvenience—an adventure wrongly considered. Considered correctly, the daily dog walks are a regimen of escape and pause. They enlarge our sympathies and sweeten our disposition. They pry open the day when it balls up into a little fist.
The walk is the basic unit of the human-and-dog commerce of unconditional love. We take care of George and George takes care of us. No matter how awful the day, or how awful I am behaving at any given moment, George doesn’t care. He finds me smoldering in my chair and dashes to my lap. Every dog is a rescue dog.
This isn’t mere sentiment. Scientists have studied the matter and found that when humans and dogs interact, stress levels in both parties decrease. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, but if they were a new discovery, imagine the commercial opportunities. Their cortisol-lowering properties would put a dog-petting station between every yoga studio and CBD store.
The power of the dog is so keen that it can even pierce teenage Kevlar. Dinner at our house is all mumbles until someone puts down their fork and George jumps up on the table. The kids respond. They discourage him from licking the plates, or push their plate to him. He responds, and that invites more comment. Communications start to be restored to the mainland. George is the safe topic we can all address. The kids engage in light dog punditry about his antics. We revisit old stories. Soon enough, we’re creased over with laughter when someone recalls how the mood-altering properties of chocolate made him go loopy to the tonsils.
We would like to take George everywhere, but sometimes we can’t. This is painful. We put him into a van that takes him to a farm. Each curbside handoff feels like a betrayal. As a puppy, George lived in a hoarder house with countless other dogs. He was so mistreated, his fear became hardwired. He flinched when you reached down to pet him.
This summer, it went horribly wrong. Shortly after arriving at the farm, George ran away. For several days there were sightings, but when strangers approached him, George ran. He didn’t know. He was scared. Our emotions spiked with each report, until we received the call. A driver had hit him. George was making his way back to the farm. The road on which he was killed was the last big one he had to cross to safety.
During our morning walks, my wife and I make plans. I had always assumed when we made those plans that George would see them through with us. He’d sprint through the gap we’d create by taking down that tree; he’d scratch at the door of the writer’s shed we’d build someday. When the kids went to college and returned home, George would consecrate the reentry ritual, walking us with the benediction of unconditional love that I hoped would settle over those visits.
The sorrow is pungent. George’s love may have been unconditional, but he loved my wife the most. Nurturers can sense one another. He did not come down in the morning when I made my coffee and started my work, but when Anne put her first foot out of bed, I knew it from the collar rattle two floors above. The soft landing from the jump off the couch, the toenails descending the wood stairs. The three-part harmony was my signal to come out of the office and make her tea. Now the stairs are quiet at daybreak. When there is a dog in the house, you are never alone. Now, even when we are all home, it can feel lonesome.
We all know that dogs and their owners look alike. It turns out, over time, dogs also learn to mimic the walking patterns of the ones holding their leash. One study found that about 80 percent of the time, dogs walked when their owners walked, and fell still when their owners stopped. The study offers no information about what happens to the owners when the dog falls still and the owners must keep walking.
We do continue our walks, but our path is straighter now. We audit our accounts, but the routine feels insecure and teetering. The puzzles we solve are about who should get the bag of dog treats, whether to keep George’s bed, the phantom sounds of George’s footsteps.
Our walks will shorten one day and come to their own end. This is just the kind of thought that George would have known to distract me from. He would have been the solution to the melancholy of his absence. And, if I work at it, I realize he still is. To set my face for too long seems like a betrayal of all that joy and unconditional love. All dogs go to heaven, I was told in the days after George’s death. It seems more like they are emissaries from there. That means George’s memory is his final gift. It orients me back to the question we faced before our best morning outings: What will we do with the rest of our walk before we must finally walk home?