After Richard and I made the commitment to adopt our rescue mutt—but before we met him and brought him home—we visited a pet supply store for the first time in years. We perused aisle after aisle of brushes and beds and bones, and we pawed through piles of sweaters, toys, and collars. I tried hard to resist the impulse to buy things we didn’t (and were unlikely) to need, but spent an inordinate length of time studying collars and leashes, trying to imagine the size and weight of our new pup, and looking forward to our daily walks together. My attempts to conjure the dog at the end of my lead only brought to mind the old “invisible dog” leash, a gag prop involving a wire stiffened lead attached to an empty harness.
I had a plastic, retractable lead in my hand when a smiling, middle-aged sales clerk stepped into the aisle to offer assistance. “I’m a trainer,” she said, glancing over her shoulder to see if anyone might be listening, “and I have to tell you that don’t really like those. You want to maintain a real sense of connection when you’re walking your dog, and these things are more like, oh, I don’t know, fishing or something. You transmit information to your dog through the lead in your hand, and the dog can’t pick up on your cues if it’s able to wander fifteen or twenty feet away from you at the end of this . . . string.” When I told the clerk our new dog weighed less than twelve pounds, she nodded in grim agreement with herself. “The other issue in our area with a dog that size walking so far from you is that a hawk can swoop down and grab it. No, really, it’s happened. Personally, I’d recommend one of these four foot training leads.”
Oh, come on, I thought, picturing a dog being carried away by a hawk. But the horrible image of dog-as-kite did sway me away from a retractable leash and I instead purchased a short cotton training lead. I thought of it as our “starter” leash, imagining that later on I’d switch to a longer or more attractive leather one.
From day one, Willie trotted beside me on that short lead, heeling so naturally it seemed he’d been bred to do so. With the lead clipped to the harness ring between his shoulder blades, we’ve walked together for many miles separated only by that four-foot length of black, flat woven cotton strap, pausing together as Willie sniffed and explored this new world we shared.
On day last Fall, early for a dental appointment, I wandered for the first time into a “Big Lots” store to kill a little time. In the pet area, on a display branded with the American Kennel Club seal of endorsement, were some handsome six-foot leather leads as well as a good-looking bronze-colored retractable leash, a seductive piece of dog-walking technology sleek and shiny as a sports car. After all, they were AKC approved and inexpensive, so I bought them both.
Over the course of the following weeks, I tried out these new purchases. Initially, the retractable lead was a novelty for both Willie and me, enabling me to remain on the pavement while Willie followed his nose wherever it led. He ventured into the brambles off the roadside, following the cloven hoof prints of the deer, and he sometimes ran ahead or lagged behind at will. I didn’t like the fact that, when twelve or fifteen feet away from me, Willie could begin eating something disgusting before I could redirect him, and I found the unfamiliar push button controls cumbersome and a bit awkward. Another dog walker or the sound of an approaching car made me reel him in; when the coast was clear, I’d let him spool the lead out again, but I was spending too much time thinking and reacting and retracting instead of simply walking. Once, Willie spotted a chipmunk and pulled the lead from my grasp. He was terrified when the ZIZZING plastic handle came bouncing and clattering after him and took off running. With the novelty already worn off, I abandoned the device completely when a friend told me about the cuts, burns, and even amputations associated with retractable leads.
Switching Willie’s plain stitched 4’ cotton lead for the riveted 6’ leather one made us both appear a bit more upscale, but I soon discovered that despite the extra two feet of freedom, Willie maintains his usual proximal distance from me, allowing the slack leather strap to drag on the ground. I in turn compensate by looping the lead around my hand a few times, shortening it to our customary four feet. It’s a separation and a distance that feels right to us both.
And so on Boxing Day, after I’d filled a carton with donations for the Salvation Army, I tucked those two new AKC dog leads inside and put the carton in the car. Then, Willie and I, wearing winter coats and tethered together in our usual way, went for a walk.