It takes two to make that leash-partnership thing work: the human at one end has to buddy up with a dog at the other end. Together, they are the best and sometimes the worst of each other.
Early on, there’s a lot of tension between the ends of that leash as they sort out what they have to say to each other, who will take the lead, who will follow. If they begin with honest intentions and a commitment to show up every day, the tension between them starts to lessen until finally, one day, they step out in perfect harmony like two dancers in sync, gliding along over invisible notes of a song that only they can hear.
Ever since my son adopted Gracie, I’ve been watching the two of them
work out their partnership. As I watch, I remember all of my leash partnerships with the dogs in my life. Just like my son is finding out, everything starts with that first dog.
My first dog was a black Great Dane named Diamond, the first dog that my husband and I had together. Diamond (like Gracie is), was an amazing teacher. He was friendly with most dogs. For some reason that I could never figure out, since Diamond came to us when he was eight weeks old, he hated Chow chows on sight. He wasn’t too fond of mounted policemen or homeless people either.
Knowing that he would easily weigh 180 pounds or more as an adult dog, learning how to leash-partner with him became my reason for living. And so, Diamond and I went to school.
Diamond (just like Gracie with my son), made me look good. When we were at dog school, I never had to worry about how he would behave around other dogs. (Lucky for us, there were no Chows.) Although reserved in nature, Diamond didn’t shy away from people. He was comfortable standing alongside you, no matter where that was.
Diamond and I learned how to partner with each other on leash. We got so good at this that I was able to walk him every day during my pregnancy. Can you imagine what the two of us looked like: me at almost nine months pregnant and Diamond not quite two years old as we slowly ambled down the sidewalk in my city neighborhood?
Diamond may have partnered with me, but (just like Gracie), he gave his heart to someone else. And, in the six short years that we had him, Diamond held fast to that love; he was always my husband’s dog. Theirs was a relationship that bypassed going to dog school. They were happy and content in each other’s company.
And, so it is with Gracie. She gave her heart to my son and is never more happy than when she is in his company.
Just like Diamond did with me, Gracie makes my son look good. She’s dog friendly which offsets the pit bulls are dangerous stereotype myth that a lot of people believe. So, I don’t worry when the two of them are out walking in our neighborhood. When we figured out which harness suited her physical body type and would curb her tendency to pull, both my son and I stepped up our game in the leash-partnership thing.
She doesn’t bark unless she’s out in the back yard egging on my husband to chase her. Like Diamond used to do, Gracie watches what’s going on around her, reserving judgement or simply deciding that she doesn’t need to offer an opinion. This attitude made her the perfect dog for my son to take to dog school.
Gracie didn’t care what kind of dog was next to her. She didn’t react unless there was an invitation to play.
These days, she’s more relaxed, chortling and snorting when she’s happy to see you. She expects that leash walks are a daily part of her routine. In fact, she’s pretty insistent that she gets three if not four of them.
Early on, those walks were really hard. Gracie wasn’t socialized as a puppy, my son hadn’t really learned how to work with Gracie off the grounds of the animal shelter. An owner surrender to an animal shelter when she was 5 months old, she spent the next 4 months in one of two shelters before coming home with us.
It’s fair to say that she’s always had dog manners. Learning to live in a house, go for rides in a car, walk on leash on quiet streets, streets with a lot of traffic, going for hikes; walking in pet friendly stores, learning not to chase cats (still a work in progress) – all of this takes time and factors in to how much tension is on both ends of the leash.
That all of this comes together with minimal human talking is one of the wonderful benefits of living and working with dogs.
And, if your son (like mine), is on the autism spectrum, watching this partnership develop is jaw-dropping amazing.
Gracie doesn’t have to know what my son says and my son doesn’t have to use a lot of words. She reads and responds to his energy. It used to be that when he’d had a bad day at work, his frustrated energy would bounce off the walls shortly after he walked into the living room. He’d have a difficult time getting Gracie into her harness because she’d be the visible manifestation of his bad vibes.
“You need to calm down before you take her out,” I’d say and even though he understood what I was saying, he couldn’t shake off how he felt.
How to find a calm, inner space is a hard thing to teach someone who has asperger’s. Because their neurological wiring falls outside of what’s considered “normal,” they have to work much harder to difuse that negativity.
Gracie makes this easier for my son because her own calm energy sparkles into happiness the minute she sees him. All he has to do is relax into it. Hers is an unconditional acceptance – she will never turn away from him. This unconditional love is the music that creates the song that only Gracie and my son hear.
It’s a song without words, a song of touch and emotion; a song that spills confidence into his life, giving him strength to stand up and advocate for himself when for so long, he didn’t know how to do this. He may still need help with the words of self-advocacy but, he’s on the other side of that first hurdle.
For the first time in his life, he knows that he’s okay.