I have done the same walk nearly every day for over 20 years. Out the gate, turn left, into the park, along the top path, round the Lake, up the middle path, along the top path, stop on the corner while Max makes a final mark, and home. No matter the weather, or how well or ill I feel, no matter if it’s a weekday, weekend or bank holiday, without fail, the dogs expect their familiar walk. And so it goes.
Or so it went.
For one of the dogs started to falter, she began to limp, to hang back. There were visits to the vets. Rest was called for, along with medication. Then an operation, which seemed to work. But all was not well, and further exploration discovered a tumour in the shoulder bone. The only option would be to amputate.
After a period of rest, the walk resumed. But it was not the same. The walks were shorter, slower and seemed to involve more waiting than walking.
Heidi wanted to keep up with the rest of the pack, she spun round and bounced whenever Max ran past. Occasionally she still chases him, using her size and weight to tackle him, oh so readily to the ground, but she no longer has her agility and now, more often than not, she is left trying to spit out clumps of Max fur. But she is still interested in the joining the other dogs exploring all those interesting new smells the park has to offer.
So, with much more of the walk being spent waiting for Heidi, the other dogs were also spending more time snuffling through the grass and bushes while I stood and waited. And that became the dog walk.
I’m not sure if dogs have an idea of a walk, but if they do it is going to be very different from a humans idea. Whenever I go for a walk it is planned in advance, whether it is one that involves looking at maps, filling flasks, making sandwiches or just throwing on a coat; even the same old daily trip to the park requires some planning – coat, keys, poo-bags, do I need gloves? A walk is about achievement, getting to the top, completing the round, seeing the sight, ticking one off the list. I had made the daily walk a challenge of completing the circuit in as quick a time as possible.
The dogs know the routine, watching for the telltale signs that could mean The Walk. All of them expressing excitement as the leads are slipped on and out we go, this is so much of their daily routine that they instinctively turn left as we head for the park. They also know when we reach the spot where I release them from their restraints, and off they go, excitedly running off – and stopping.
There is much stopping in The Dog Walk, stopping and sniffing, moving on to the next sniff, then back to the previous one.
For the dogs, The Walk isn’t about pace, or targets or even going from A to B. It’s about this bit of grass in front of me, that sudden movement to the right; it involves a close examination of everything to see whether it is of interest or not, it’s about play and chase, meeting friends and growling at strangers.
I can never see the world as they see it, but now on our walks, I stop and wait and watch. I watch as the dogs dash back and forth over the same patch of the park, I watch to see who’s coming along the path, I watch the clouds and the changing colours of the leaves, I look out for squirrels. But mostly, I wait.
Walking the dog was not always as relaxing as it is supposed to be, if I were late, in a hurry, keen to get round in time, then it could be quite stressful. The Dog Walk now is more about what the dogs want, what they need to get out of it. Once they are off their leads it is the dogs who set the pace and it is a far more relaxing event. It is about greeting the new sights, sounds and smells of the day, it is about getting lost in the moment, enjoying the here and now, it is about taking the time to play, to stand and chat, to wait.
But mostly, it is about chasing squirrels.