My dog, Lucky lived her first few months in the streets of Fort-de-France Bay on the Caribbean island of Martinique. She learnt to fear and avoid people, cars and bikes. And rightfully so, they are dangerous for a puppy on their own.
My wife and I attempted several times to walk with Lucky in the nearby forest. But each time Lucky was stressed: hyperalert, flinching at every crunch of a twig and flutter of a leaf. And if we met people, she dragged us off the path to hide.
I didn’t want to stress Lucky like this again.
I’ve been gradually introducing our noisy, busy and dangerous world to her. We’ve made substantial progress, but we have a lot more work to do.
Since Lucky isn’t ready for the 15-minute walk from my apartment through residential streets to the forest, and I wanted some daily exercise, I started walking in the forest without her. I felt terribly guilty that I was going on a walk without my dog. It didn’t seem fair to her even though I knew she was safe and relaxed at home. I would run these thoughts over in my head, reinforcing the blame. I should have returned from my walks rejuvenated, but instead, I returned with a heavier sack of guilt on my shoulders. Eventually, I stopped going for a walk.
One afternoon my head was a foggy mess. I needed some fresh air. On my way out, I picked up her dog lead. I don’t know why. I carried the lead in my hand precisely as if Lucky was attached to the other end. I imagined her trotting beside me, splodging through the puddles and sticking her nose in piles of dead leaves.
I soaked up the experience of the forest and what it felt like to have Lucky with me. Woodpeckers were knocking holes in tree bark, and crows cawed for mates. I breathed in the damp air among the beech and oak trees that filled my visual field. And my legs skidded out from underneath me on the sodden paths. I smelt the humidity all around. Between my fingers, I felt the texture of the woven cord lead, its frayed ends and the weight of the buckle attachment.
I imagined Lucky charging through the trees and running back to me for safety when she met a roe deer. I saw her rolling in the mud, her pristine snowy-white coat clad in brown and grey clumps.
When I met people, and I saw them searching for my dog, I imagined what they might be thinking, “His dog must be rooting around somewhere,” or, “I wonder what type of dog he has, I hope it’s not dangerous.” I even called out Lucky’s name when I imagined she’d wandered too far.
It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine all this because I was in the forest. I wasn’t attempting to visualise the experience from a meditation cushion or while washing dishes. I was visualising walking my dog among some authentic sensory experiences.
I now walk daily in the forest with my dog lead in my hand. And one day, when Lucky’s more confident outside, I’ll be walking with her attached to the end of it.
This is a sort of ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to achieving something. But this is internalised faking until I make it. I’m not telling people I’ve built ten websites, written copy for an award-winning magazine, expanded my business to ten employees or earned £20k last month.
What I’m faking are things I control – my actions and thoughts. I’m out in the very place that I’ll walk my dog, and I’m present to as many sensations as possible. This creates vivid memories that have now changed my perspective from one of guilt into confidence. Sometimes my experience of imagining my walk with Lucky is so real I’m surprised to see Lucky greet me at my front door when I return.
I know that this real-world visualisation gives me the best possible chance that one day soon, Lucky, Bénédicte and I will explore the forest together.
* I prefer dog ‘lead’ in place of dog ‘leash’. Leash suggests I’m restraining my dog when in fact I’m leading her as a leader of our family pack.