The Invisible Leash

We first started experimenting with allowing our dog, Felix, off the leash on a quiet dirt road in Maine last summer where other pedestrians were rare and we could hear any car coming from a distance. To our surprise, he tended to walk as if tethered to a long invisible leash—walking ahead or behind, pausing to sniff and investigate as he wished, but always checking where we were, and not allowing himself to drift too far from us. And if we called him, he would either return to us, or stop and wait. He’s a medium-small dog, perhaps a border collie/ rat terrier mix, we’re not sure, short haired, white with black smudges, with a tail that curls up like a question mark as he sniffs the path before him. On that vacation, we continued to go leashless, and gained so much confidence that on our return back home to Indiana, I started trying it there too, in our quiet suburban neighborhood.

unnamed-4At first, I’d try it only on the most quiet and empty side streets, but soon more boldly, almost everywhere. I’d leash him if another dog walker approached, or a pedestrian who seemed likely to disapprove, but increasingly, and despite my wife’s disapproval, leashlessness became the norm. Felix had something in him, apparently, that made a leash optional. He never ran away, but trotted along just as he had on the quiet dirt road, keeping close tabs on me, and staying within a certain distance. To my amazement, I discovered that even if another dog passed on the opposite sidewalk, Felix would turn to watch that dog, showing every sign of interest—but would stay unswerving on our path.

Well–almost all of the time. If a rabbit started near him, nothing could stop him, and on those occasions, when he suddenly streaked off through someone’s back yard, I felt a twinge of anxiety–my wife has made clear that if any mishap befalls Felix on these outlaw walks, she will not forgive me. But he has always reappeared 30 seconds or so later, sometimes a house or two down, and at my call, bolts towards me and then sits & compliantly accepts the penitential leashing that follows.

Walking Felix with a leash now began to feel constrained and uptight to me, a crude show of force. Two creatures marching along, one tied to the other: it felt like an outing for a prisoner or an inhabitant of an asylum, led by his minder or jailer. John Berger has written that “an animal’s life, never to be confused with a man’s, can be seen to run parallel to his…. With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange.” Free of his leash, Felix’s companionship on these walks felt not simply “parallel,” going beyond any such simple model of relation; his perambulations traced an evolving series of geometric patterns with the invisible leash I still sometimes pictured attached to his collar, as he would swing back and forward, from side to side, freely wandering within the limited bounds defined by my path, always returning to the center of my forward-moving body. It felt as if we were two celestial bodies, Felix a satellite to me, bound to me by a pull of attraction, obligation, or loyalty, but still partially liberated, able to devise his own paths, follow his own preferences, within the range permitted.
Berger declares that the keeping of pets “is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit…which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.” Is it possible, though, for the keeping of domestic pets instead to open up the household to a more public world outside, to invite civic exchange? In our household, we also keep four chickens who sleep in a hutch and mostly wander our backyard during the day (there had been five, but Princess Catkin unfortunately lost her head to a hawk), as well as two cats who roam imperiously in and out of the house. The hectic presence of all of these animals, with their variously intersecting needs and intentions, works against the closed-off qualities of our home; our animal companions draw in visitors, and make their own friends whom we sometimes do not even know (we once learned that one of our cats had a permanent sleeping spot and a food dish with some unfamiliar neighbors two blocks away). Somewhat as children do, and contra Berger, domesticated animals can open up a richer give-and-take with a world outside the home.

unnamed-2When I walk with Felix tethered to a leash, I feel as if we offer proof of the “personal withdrawal into the private small family unit” that Berger ascribes to the culture of pets: I am bringing my codependent animal into public briefly, under strict constraint, for purposes of limited exercise and defecation, soon to be dragged back into the safety of the home. But when he can run freely up and down the sidewalk, Felix seems in the world, making his own way. It’s not that I have any delusions that he is anything but a coddled creature of civilization. (Oh, you should see his dainty dog bed!) On the contrary: I like the sight of him enjoying his excursion in town, taking in the sights and visiting with the neighbors, like a sociable Jane Austen bachelor.

That Felix chooses to stay with us–has had every opportunity to run away, but instead elects to walk calmly along, bound by the invisible tether of his instincts or desires or anxieties, feels very satisfying, too. As a kid, I had a dog who was always breaking loose, seizing the opportunity of any door left open a crack to bolt and tear off for parts unknown, sometimes not to return until much later in the day, filthy from unknown adventures. He would lie licking himself, cleaning off the mud, and we could sense that he was never happier than on one of these heedless, illicit jaunts. Living with that only half-domesticated, rebellious dog made one feel truly like a prison guard, forced always to be on the alert for a potential escape. A dog who does not want to escape, who wants to stay more or less with us all the time, was a new thing for me. Felix has made me understand domestication in a new way: as a powerfully saturating force, an ideology enforcing the willing consent of the governed; as a rule of law that can become, in some creatures, second nature: organizing instincts, desire, and behavior, insisting on fidelity and closeness to the owner. An invisible leash.

The case could certainly be made that my permitting of Felix his freedom, in a context in which I know he will not take it too far, was simply a further exercise of my power over him: less a granting of liberty than a flaunting of strength. Maybe so, but if this is true, it was also the case that I enjoyed allowing Felix to follow his own instincts, able to stop and start and make small diversions from the forward path without continually having to beg my allowance in the form of an extension of the leash. Perhaps it was a kind of noblesse oblige, but to see Felix enjoying his limited freedom on these walks made me feel a little better about the embarrassing fact of my absolute control of him.

Probably I saw in my leashless dog some symbolic manifestation of my own freedom, as I liked to imagine it. We were both rebels, a little bit, it felt like, as we walked along together, but separate.  When Felix lagged far behind me, I sometimes turned and called to him, and then he would run at full tilt towards me like a greyhound, a joyful sprint. I loved to see him rocket towards me, putting on the brakes as he approached and gliding to a walk a few yards beyond. In these runs I saw a kinetic energy and power, otherwise suppressed and contained.

Other dog owners sometimes remark admiringly on this leashless Felix: “if I did that with mine, he’d be gone in 10 seconds!” But once in a while, I feel some disapproval from a passerby. A trim middle-aged man said as he jogged by on the street: “you know, this town has a leash law;” and once something similar from a homeowner raking the leaves in his front lawn. On those occasions, I always leashed Felix quickly and apologetically; and I tried to gauge approaching pedestrians for any sign of disapproval, and to err on the side of caution. But so many people in our neighborhood had expressed the pleasure they took in the sight of this wonder of domestication–the leashless dog walk–that I’d made an ethical and practical calculus: that in the balance of things, I had the approval of my community more than not.

Felix and I had an encounter recently, however, that shifted my sense of this calculus.  As we rounded the corner onto our street, Felix trotting a few feet ahead of me on the sidewalk, we found ourselves approaching an older woman of 60-some years whom I didn’t recognize, walking with some kind of cane or walking stick. She turned and faced us, I thought initially to say hello.  But instead, her face dark with anger, she pointed the stick at Felix: “Don’t you come near me!” and then turned to me, spitting out words that felt long-planned: “You know, there’s a leash law in this town, and doing what you’re doing is against the fucking law!”—this last as we walked past her, and I, chastened, reached down to clip Felix back on the leash.

We now walk, mostly, with leash on, Felix’s movements checked and trailed by my own slower pace, both resigned to the letter of the law of domestication. Someone mentioned to me a friend who is so scared of dogs that the sight of one walking loose on a sidewalk terrifies her, forces her to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. I get it. What I’ve been doing is not a responsible thing to do.

But on one section of our morning walk, a stretch of road on which we almost never see a soul, I sometimes still look around and, if no one is approaching, quickly click off the leash, allowing him to swing backward and forward, tracing his dizzying geometry of joyful runs around me: once again, for a little while, almost as if truly free.

Ivan Kreilkamp:  Novels are long, life is short.