I am still in the process of shedding my need to be Oz’s superwoman, who can shelter him from everything in the world that might ever upset him. I am letting go of my overly-vigilant self who gave me literal stress pains. I am letting go of my invisible Oz-sized bubble-wrapped hamster ball. I am continually working at just being human. Letting Oz just be a dog. I can see how much better off we are this way. How much more relaxed we are and much more progress we can make.
Yet I still have that underlying tugging, that nagging little voice, that still kicks myself when things don’t go perfectly. That replays situations over and over in my head, self-destructing and nitpicking everything I should’ve done better.
A thoughtful amount of planning generally goes into where I take Oz to hike on any given day. At least a couple times a week, I make sure that Oz gets a social hike, either with some nice off-leash hiking friends or at a place I know is popular for off-leash hikers where he might be able to get in some nice greetings. I do this to balance out our other work, so we always remember what we have striven hard to learn: dogs are safe. Other times, when I know Oz just needs a mental break from it all, we get off the beaten path and unwind, hiking in silent perfection where the only sounds for what seems like miles are our footsteps and Oz’s bells, where we can sniff and chase squirrels (and chipmunks and birds and deer) to our heart’s content. Where we can forget the world and just live in the moment. Some days, we think a little less, and can have a happy in between.
Yesterday was a social day.
It was a grey rainy day, but as we always do, Oz and I set out for our daily hike. We had gotten a small group together with two of Oz’s favorite friends and our five happy border collies trotted out into the woods in blissful group sniffing and exploring. Three noses harmoniously on one sniff, two noses hunting for sticks. The parking lot was unusually empty, so we didn’t have our usual flow of off-leash greetings as we made our way through the park. Everything was calm, everything was perfect.
The path narrows and the plants close in after a certain point and we were making our way through one of the tightest areas when a jogger appeared around the corner. Oz wagged his tail at the man and the man frowned back. I encouraged Oz to keep moving with (what I thought) was the rest of our group and fed him as he offered his attention to me, unfazed. I mentally counted: one red, one blue, one blonde, one black-and-white. One black-and-white short. A worried bark resounded behind us. The dog’s mom ran back towards the sound only to discover her dog cowering, frozen, as the male jogger stomped at her, speaking to her harshly. As another dog approached the commotion, the jogger finally relinquished the trail and with a bit of coaxing, the dog was able to catch up to the rest of our group.
We all sighed. But on we went.
About ten minutes later, we weave past a closed bridge and around a mud pit into the quietest part of the park. A dog appears around the corner. Posture a little stiff, but the owner assured his dog was fine. Oz went up to the dog, tail circle wagging, and greeted the dog sweetly as the rest of the group approached from behind. The dog turned it’s butt towards me and I could see its (truly) massive balls. I beamed as Oz continued circle wagging. My brilliant little (in-tact) guy.
Then I see it coming. The dog began to posture and circle around behind my relaxed Oz. I tell the owner Oz is not going to like it if his dog humps him. (And here’s where I am allowing myself to still be annoyed at myself—at the very least, this warranted a much less polite demand to be listened to.) The man ignores me and before I can step in, the dog, three times Oz’s weight, begins to mount Oz, mushing drool all over Oz’s back. Oz corrects the dog and flips around. The man and his dog are holding their ground, not surprised by the turn of events, and Oz (understandably) does not want to turn his back on the dog again. I gently lead Oz away from the dog and after a bit of barking on half of our group’s part, everyone shakes it off and eats some cheese.
A bit annoyed and shaken, I thought about ending the hike here as we neared the parking lot. Something was clearly in the air today.
So following that instinct, we made our way back to the cars and loaded everyone in. A yucky feeling sat in my stomach. Today was supposed to be his social day. He was supposed to have nice, happy greetings and reconfirm that dogs were indeed still safe. The old me, wanting to protect Oz, would’ve let that feeling fester, scolded myself for what happened, and left it at that, not wanting to risk anything else happening.
But I reminded myself to take a breath and I took a cue from what Oz has been showing me more and more. I decided that like him, I too could learn to be brave.
My lovely companions agreed to head back out. And once again, we didn’t see anyone for much of the walk. But on our way back, we see a man approaching us. The man makes no attempt to recall his sizable male dog, who’s a bit off the trail, so I give Oz his cue to say hello. Despite myself, I hold my breath for just a moment as Oz approaches the dog, wondering if his last experience had set us back. But the ever-growing optimist, Oz proves to me once again just how far he has come and wags his tail relaxedly as he greets the dog just as sweetly. Meanwhile, the black-and-white girl who had been scared by the male jogger, wagged her happily at the rather larger man, also seemingly unfazed. Relaxed and happy, we all went on our way.
No one seemed any worse for wear. Shit happened, but we were all okay.
The more you hike, the higher the chance is that shit is someday going to happen. But that’s not going to stop Oz and I. The beginning of today may not have been great (and I now know how I’ll react differently in the future), but I’m making a promise to Oz that I’ll always remember just how hard we work and how far he has come. I will continue to do my best to protect him when it’s necessary and remember how despite his anxiety disorder, despite everything, how deeply brave he has become, when it’s not. And to the best of my ability, I will remember to follow his example. I will remember that no matter what else life throws our way, I will carry on, I will trust, I will be an optimist, and maybe most importantly, I will always try to be brave.