How to Walk an Invisible Dog

April 7, 2017

Start with suitable footwear. A good walking shoe is best, but if you must be fashionable, wear flats. Be sure to think of the weather; do you need a coat? A hat? An umbrella? Also, what about money for a taxi in the event that you walk too far and your feet blister? You’ll need to get yourself back somehow—what about the subway? Does your city’s public transportation system even allow dogs? If not, pretend that they do, and then refer to the essay, How to Travel with an Invisible Dog.

The reasons for walking around with an invisible dog will vary from person to person, but the thing that must not vary is your dog. You can’t walk some prototype of a Pomeranian one morning and then what looks to be a pit bull the next. Be loyal to your weird, little, arthritic Yorkie terrier, or Labradoresque mutt, or white German shepherd rescue, or whatever it was that you had to put to sleep on the day after Thanksgiving, because he loves you and you need him and you’ll fall apart if you mistakenly think that by imagining another dog, you’re moving on somehow.

You’re not.

If you were fine and experiencing no difficulty getting out of bed or finding the energy to shower, then you wouldn’t need this. Invisible dog walking is for the broken.

Children are the only exception to this rule. Children can walk whatever invisible dog they want, because this activity is likely either a fun way to pass the time or a sad but endearing reaction to Parents Who Won’t Allow Their Children Pets. From the ages of six to twelve, I walked to school with the dog that my parents were forever refusing me. In third grade, she was a Rottweiler. Fourth grade, I walked an enormous husky. But here’s the truth: you are not a child and therefore your invisible dog is more funereal.

You know that dog so well—the lovely curve of his back, the drippy chin after a visit to his water bowl. He isn’t hard to conjure. Like the sense of taste, your dog’s presence is multi-layered. Sweet, salty, bitter, sour—his movements, expressions, sounds, repetitive behaviors: you sense it all. There’s even something akin to umami, that difficult-to-describe layer that deals more in depth than in identifiable characteristics; you can feel him understanding you, reading you, and that amount of intimacy creates a rich roundness to your relationship, an underlying current of love.

But in order to deny reality, we must craft a new one. Invisible things must become solid. Consider the leash, for instance. It seems obvious enough; an invisible dog requires an invisible leash. But I encourage you to vividly imagine that leash—really define its characteristics in your mind.

Let’s say that the leash is hand-sewn leather with a sterling silver clip. Picture how your thumb casts that dark, damp-looking imprint when you press down on the leather. Feel how heavy it is in your hand. Or notice the way your white and yellow polka-dotted leash, once nautical and refined, faded into a weathered souvenir: dirty beige dot, light dirty beige dot, everything speckled with mud. Or is your leash something basic, something cheap, something that matches his collar? Is it blue? Black? Red? Retractable? A rope?

Choose the image of whatever leash you like, whether it be the leash you clipped onto your friend all those thousands of times or something new. Just be aware that how you hold your invisible dog’s invisible leash in public spaces is a good indicator of your mental state. Keep yourself in check by referring to the following leash-holding guidelines:

A) If you are imagining yourself holding the leash: you are Fragile but Functioning.
B) If you are actually pretending to hold the leash, fingers curled around air: you are Fragile and Teetering.
C) Purchasing a leash to hold or, worse, digging your dead dog’s leash out of the box of his things that you kept and having it dangle there, free and unattached by your side: you are Reaching Breaking Point. Refer to the essay, How to Move On, But Only Just A Little Bit.

Most days, I choose to unclip the invisible leash because that’s the way my dog and I walked together. If you’re comfortable with your ability to control your dog through alpha-style leadership, try it. Leading only through energy is empowering, ancient, organic: just a woman and her dog. In this case, keep your shoulders back and head high.

I especially like walking my dog this way at night. The sidewalks seem wider, the world is quieter, and parents don’t clutch their children in exaggerated fear as we pass by. Night people don’t mind a bit of rule breaking. Night people understand why small people walk with big dogs. Even now, I wonder if they sense that I’m not alone.

But don’t stop with the night walks; honor the other rituals you had with your dog. You can forget the doggie poop bags because, really, we’ve earned that at least. But take the invisible tennis ball. Tie on the invisible pawprint-patterned handkerchief. Let him carry around the invisible stuffed red bird that he was so proud of, even though it turned stiff and spiky with saliva. And if you’ve gotten this far, then here you are in denial, so leave the anxiety and depression at home, and have fun with your invisible dog! He’s already accompanying you on your walk to the drugstore to buy more Nyquil—take it a step further and envision those things that you two used to love doing.

For instance, on a hot day, stop by the nearest pond or lake and watch him swim. “Dogs Not Allowed” does not apply. And while you’re looking out over the water, imagine yourself tossing the tennis ball into the water for him to fetch. Fall into that symbiotic relationship of throw/return, throw/return, throw, return. In some other realm of time, maybe this loop continues forever. In some other realm of time, maybe you’re not standing there alone.

Or, on each occasion that you walk by a squirrel picking around in the dirt or snapping its tail, allow yourself to be reminded of how much your dog loves squirrels—Look! Look at the way his ears immediately prick up!—and how a dog’s stupid simple love for things signifies that life isn’t as complicated as we all make it out to be. Your dog exists from this moment to the next moment. He doesn’t give a single thought to the terrible things that you’re afraid will happen tomorrow, or to that shitty thing that happened yesterday. There are fields to run through! Grass to roll in! Blocks to walk! Places to explore!

My big white dog has a brown splotch on his back, which after two glasses of wine resembles Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, so his name is Gorby, and he nuzzles his nose into my palm every time we stop and wait at a light. He was anorexic when I first adopted him, so he likes it best when I hand-feed him his dinner, which is usually my dinner. He’s slow and deliberate, cautious and calculating. One bite, smack smack, sniff sniff, next bite. Gorby likes children because they let him lick their faces, but he doesn’t like it when children touch his legs, and they always want to touch his legs. His tail is wolflike and strong and once his wagging tail smacked me so hard in the face that I had to spend the rest of the day pressing a bag of frozen vegetables to my left eye.

Gorby is the reason I go home early from parties, or don’t go at all. He’s the reason I get up earlier than I care to, and why I weigh five pounds less than I probably should. Sometimes we walk over ten miles at a time. We also stop at the grocery store, or maybe a coffee shop, and Gorby waits for me outside—I don’t even tie him up. I like to peek out the window while I’m in line at the register so I can see him sitting there, his ears perked up, his gaze concerned and eyes locked on the entryway I disappeared into. Nothing is worse than separation, even if it’s two or three minutes.

Gorby died at thirteen on the living room floor of my apartment in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Still, here he is, walking next to me down First Avenue near my apartment in New York City. We’re heading to the East River because it was too quiet inside my apartment to work or even read. His vision and hearing are back. So are his hips. I couldn’t leave him behind.

•••

A strange thing happens after you walk a dog for so many years. Going outside without him feels pointless; your feet drag and you turn around early, uninspired to do whatever you’d set out to do. Even the color of the leaves seems boring. Other times you feel throat-clenching guilt, because the dog is in his best element—his most beautifully calm state of joy—while trotting next to you on a trail through the woods, and now you’re doing it without him.

With this, a warning: do not be surprised when this guilt appears in a flood of memories of your most shameful transgressions.

Once, about a year before Gorby died, right when his senses were starting to fade, I hid behind a tree in the park we had stopped in—like a child does—and waited to see if he’d come searching for me. Recently he’d been getting more distracted and would wander off a little, forgetting to follow me. I’d have to turn around, walk back, lightly tap him and signal him to keep moving since he could no longer hear my calls or snaps—or maybe he was just choosing to ignore me? This was called aging, but it annoyed me at times, especially on mornings when I was running late. Had he forgotten his devotion to me? Would he be more content just being left alone to meander?

From my hiding spot behind the tree, I watched as he lifted his head and then spun in a slow circle, looking for me. When it was clear that I was gone, his entire body turned rigid. He ran stiff-legged in one direction, then stopped, and hurriedly limped off in another. His tail was tucked between his legs. His eyes were wide. I immediately ran out from behind the tree, clapping my hands and yelling his name, but this only seemed to confuse him more; it seemed he could hear me yelling, but couldn’t locate where the sound was coming from. In a panic, he took off in the opposite direction back toward home.

I raced after him, yelling, waving my arms, and when he finally turned and saw me, a look of relief crashed over him before he jogged towards me. He wagged his tail at hyperspeed, pressed his ears back against his head, wiggled. I lowered myself to my knees and he excitedly licked my face, whining.

He was apologizing for having lost me.

•••

A few weeks after Gorby died, I accompanied my husband on a trip to Philadelphia where he had an interview for a position at a hospital. We were moving to wherever he matched; we were leaving Massachusetts. I didn’t cry about the dog on the bus ride there, nor once we arrived at the hotel. In fact, I was “putting on a brave face,” because that’s what everyone said I was doing, so once my husband’s interview was done, we layered ourselves in almost every piece of clothing we had in our suitcases and left the hotel to walk towards the Liberty Bell.

“It really was for the best,” my husband said a few minutes into the walk. His breath was visible, and he stepped cautiously over large sheets of ice on the sidewalk. “He wouldn’t have made it one block in weather like this before slipping and breaking a hip.”

He’d said something like this dozens of times in the last month. I had to agree, because a broken dog isn’t much better than a dead dog. I didn’t want the dog that was dying on his doggie bed on the living room floor—that Gorby was ready to go. I wanted the Gorby that waited outside the closed bathroom door to make sure I was okay. I wanted the Gorby that would find joy in this weather, the one who rolled in the snow.

When we were paused at a stoplight, I reached out a gloved hand to lightly pat Gorby’s bony head. “Are your hands cold?” my husband asked, confused.

“Yes,” I said, because they were. I wasn’t lying.

We stopped at Reading Terminal Market on the way back. The three of us strolled through the halls, amazed at the variety and quantity of food. I hovered for several minutes at the butcher’s stall—a strange choice for a vegetarian—in order to let the dog drool over the cuts of meat. I led him past the Amish pulled pork, the pastries, the giant wheels of cheese, and sushi counters.

While we waited in line to buy a bag of fresh rolls, my husband turned to stare at me, then asked, “Where are you?”

“What do you mean?” I said, and gave him a quick smile. He frowned and shook his head. Then we walked back to the hotel so that we could all warm up.

•••

If a friend or loved one finds out what path your grief is taking and tells you that illusions aren’t healthy, tell them how much you need this. Show them the positives, like your newly toned quadriceps, your freshly washed hair. Point out the soft tan lines on your shoulders. When they ask why you don’t just get a new dog to walk through this world with, don’t just tell them that they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t, but be courteous and try to explain it to them. Several options are available, such as:

A) Something snapped loose, and I’m not yet able to put myself back together.
B) I don’t want another dog. I want this dog.
C) Loyalty means never leaving them behind.

Sometimes you may wonder how many people are walking invisible dogs. There’s no way to know, of course. But if you’re taking daily walks with an invisible dog and are starting to wonder whether you’re the only one, be assured you’re not. Best guess? The sidewalks are filled with them.

•••

The following day, my husband left to attend the second half of an interview, and Gorby and I walked down Walnut Street and all the way to the Delaware River. It was late afternoon and, despite a lack of wind, the cold was still shocking. The citizens of Philadelphia walked with their heads down, their bodies pressed slightly forward, eyes on the sidewalk. Stiff. Tough. I started imagining Gorby in an argyle sweater with a bow tie and thought about how, if even for a second, it might make a few people smile. Somebody might even comment or ask to say “hello.”

As the dog and I trudged on through the cold, we approached the river. The view was homogenous: gray water, gray sky, gray buildings, bridge, cement, ice. The color seemed a good symbol for that person standing on the empty river walk, alone. I’d managed to pull myself out of the darkest moments, but I existed in the halfway zone where I could be content, vapid. The dog had been the last line connecting me from depression and a life that didn’t move forward, or move at all.

The sunlight, already weak and muted, dissipated further and the emptiness of the space startled me. I didn’t know this city, there could be dangerous men lurking about—the area I’d wandered into seemed as likely a place as any to be actually disappeared. I picked up the pace and smiled down at my invisible dog, but noticed my heart was beating faster.

Just as I was stepping over a pile of dirty snow, I felt a tug at my shoulder. I whipped around and saw that it was just a naked tree branch that had snagged in my wraparound scarf, but it had startled me enough to raise my adrenaline, and in that moment I saw myself, for the first time in so long, exactly as I was: a young woman, startled and unsure, hungry, tired, and standing alone by a river on a bitterly cold day.

It was harsh—this new outsider’s perspective. Here is my big dog, right next to me, but he just exists inside my own head. He’s gone.

For the first time since he’d died, I wondered if I’d sunk too deep into this—if this amount of denial was dangerous. I’d kept walking Gorby so as not to lose that cherished, simple time of moving through cities, woods, space with that perfect companion, the one who doesn’t talk or demand or judge. I was walking an invisible dog because I didn’t want to be by myself in the dark or even in the light, because I wanted to avoid the emptiness of my home, the silence that now greeted me at the door. I was walking the dog because I always said that he needed those daily outings, but that was only half the story.

And yet even in that harshness, I sensed something sharp and bright, something resembling my former self.

Stay like this, I thought.

Welcome back, I imagined my husband saying.

Gorby was already unhooked from his invisible leash, so I shooed him away, thinking he’d wander off into the gray and leave me with what I knew would be a shockingly painful but clearer view. That’s what I needed: clarity. So I took a deep breath, readying myself for the final farewell. I wanted that bittersweet “I’ll be seeing you soon” moment where he’d turn and look at me with love and trust and wisdom.

But the further I walked alone, the more my resolve weakened. My mind started to conjure images of him being left there by the river, searching for me, panicking. I couldn’t stop it. It was awful. I was there, in plain sight, but he couldn’t find me. I was the invisible one. Gorby sprinted up and down the walkway, checking behind trees, sticking his head through the railing and looking down at the frozen river, growing more and more desperate to locate me. He was terrified. His mouth chattered, his eyes darted. His tail was tucked. Which direction was even home? Where are we? I could see it in his face that he was so sorry for whatever he’d done.

I didn’t know what to do, so I started walking faster. My heart was racing, my throat tight. Maybe this is part of it, I thought. I started running. My legs were sluggish in the frigid air but I darted across Front Street, then jogged a block north and turned onto Chestnut, thinking only about getting back to the hotel as quickly as possible. As I ran west, the streets became livelier, more youthful, and it was easier to keep the dog away: I didn’t want to get sucked back into the fog.

But by the time I reached Third Street, I was having trouble breathing, and tears filled my eyes. And then I was crying. Among all the bars and restaurants and people greeting each other on the street, my mouth hung open in an ugly, horrified sob. I’d left him there. I’d left him.

That’s when something snapped: I looked down and Gorby was right next to me.

I’m back! his open-mouthed expression said.

His tail was swinging and his front legs danced up and down on the sidewalk. He smoothed his huge ears back and his wet eyes blinked and stared, waiting. I paused. I could feel my heart beat inside my mouth, inside the cartilage of my nose.

Then I reached out a hand and gently patted his head. Squatted down to kiss him. And in my mind, all those hardened Philadelphians passing by smiled in his direction as we walked together back to the hotel.

Look how sweet he is in that little red sweater, I heard them saying.

His tail was swinging in big circles; the invisible leash was tucked away in my pocket.

I could barely feel the cold.