During my therapy dog classes, I teach two concepts that can be difficult to balance: be a leader and trust your dog. The first implies that you are in charge and the second requires that you know when to cede some of that power. I was working with Wendy and her Coonhound, Phoenix, when she relayed a story that perfectly illustrated this delicate balance.
Wendy and Phoenix were hiking on a haphazardly marked trail on the far east side of Tucson a few years ago. The trail was a reverse hike, starting with a steady downhill descent into a ravine, then leveling out to a winding path bending toward, then away from a running stream. Phoenix was enjoying some off-leash time, but was never more than about fifty feet from Wendy without checking in. The weather was beautiful but Wendy was mindful of the time, not wanting be stuck in the ravine at dusk or later. She called to Phoenix and they turned and headed back toward the parking area.
As they worked their way back, Wendy took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes later, she knew they were lost. She had a vague idea that the car was at the top of the small ravine, but the paths she chose all seemed to lead them further away. She’d kept her worry in check until now. The evening had turned chilly and dark and the wind had picked up. Wendy was underdressed for the sudden temperature change and they had no food or survival tools. She started to panic.
As Wendy felt her chest tighten, Phoenix looked at her, looked to a fork in the path, and started walking. Phoenix knew the way out. She confidently drew Wendy forward, making each turn as of she’d walked the trails a thousand times before. Wendy knew Phoenix would lead her to safety. Wendy trusted her. And Phoenix did not disappoint. She made a direct line back to the warm car.
When Wendy finished telling the story she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “I know Phoenix could lead others out of their ravines, as well.” That’s really what therapy dogs do. They lead people to safety. They create a temporary world where there is no judgment, no right or wrong answer, no pain, no grief, no emotional distress. There is only a goofy grin, an occasional loud bay or howl and warm, soft, saggy fur in which to bury your troubles.