“May I pat your dog?”
It was a question I posed to many of the dog owners I met on my early morning, fall walks around the reservoir.
If the answer was “yes”, I’d smile gratefully and bend to stroke the top of yet another warm and furry head.
“Do you have a dog?” I’d invariably be asked.
“No,” I’d reply. “I’m just living vicariously.”
Was it my imagination, or were the looks I’d receive slightly sad, almost pitying?
As a child growing up in a highly allergic family, I’d never owned a pet. As a woman with a successful career and an active social and cultural life, having a pet had never crossed my mind.
Then, in late middle age, I’d found myself with no family, no career (due to the diagnosis of a chronic neuromuscular disease), and a life of increasing pain and decreasing mobility.
In an effort to stay limber, I’d begun taking long walks through the city. But as time passed, and my body grew stiffer and more resistant to the concrete sidewalks, I’d turned instead to the softer earth paths of the reservoir.
It was there that I’d discovered a delightful and unexpected diversion: dog watching.
Some of the dogs were on leashes, bouncing or plodding, sprinting or chugging, alongside their owners. Others were off leash, barking as they chased after squirrels or raced to catch bright rubber balls and frayed plastic Frisbees.
Their owners chatted easily among themselves as they strode together in pairs and in groups, calling out a cheerful “’morning” to everyone they passed — even solitary figures like me.
Oh, how I’d envied them.
Dogs and owners alike.
I’d envied their closeness. Their unique relationships. Their shared experiences. They were like privileged members of an exclusive club, bound by mutual love and loyalty and respect.
Suddenly, I wanted to be part of that club.
Throughout the winter, as my pain grew worse and my walks grew shorter, I immersed myself in all things dog. I watched every dog program on TV, even the reruns. I memorized the names of every dog breed recognized by the Westminster Kennel Club. I wept for every dog on every online rescue site.
By spring, I made up my mind.
I would adopt a dog.
One Saturday morning in early May, I found her.
Half maltese, half yorkshire terrier, her pert, whiskered face with its impossibly long eyelashes, gazed out at me from the computer screen.
And I fell in love.
We met in the flesh that same afternoon. And on Sunday — her third birthday — she was officially mine.
I renamed her Shadow. Because of her smoky, black and gray colouring and because, within hours of entering my world, she literally became my shadow.
In the days that followed, I was stunned by the depth of my love for her. It was a love unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Fierce and protective. So intense that it made my chest ache and brought tears to my eyes.
With her came a new routine, a broadening of my narrow world. Each morning, I’d open the baby gate to the empty storage closet I’d turned into her bedroom (complete with wallpaper, a shelf lined with dog care products and whimsical china dogs, and assorted plush toys propped up on the floor) and there she’d be.
My reason for getting up every day. The perky, welcoming presence that dulled my pain for awhile. The tender, wriggling bundle of warmth that allowed me some temporary peace.
We were equal partners, Shadow and I, starting together from scratch.
Just as I’d never walked a dog before, she’d never been walked before. Her original owners had simply opened the back door of their house and let her out into their garden.
I bought a harness and leash, and began our mutual training by walking her up and down the corridor outside my apartment. We then progressed to the large, landscaped garden with its stone pathways off the third floor of the apartment building itself.
I ignored the new, gnawing pain in my right shoulder and focused solely on Shadow. My goal: to become an expert dog walker, while making her an expert at being walked.
Finally, after weeks of practice, I felt secure enough to attempt our first trip to the reservoir two blocks away.
My heart was pounding as I led her across a busy street for the first time. I held my breath, then slowly released it, as we crossed the second street without incident.
This was it.
I straightened my back, tightened my grip on the leash and gave it a gentle tug. Then, woman and dog moved forward in perfect synch onto the grounds of the reservoir.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Shadow churning along next to me on her short, slender legs. As if sensing my gaze, she turned her head and glanced up at me. I mouthed a flurry of proud, happy kisses her way, then returned my attention to the path ahead.
A woman I’d seen on many of my walks was coming toward us, her brown standard poodle, Eli, prancing regally beside her.
Once again, I held my breath.
“’Morning,” she said as she drew closer.
“’Morning,” I replied.
And then I waited. For her to notice.
Without breaking stride, she called back over her shoulder,
“You finally got a dog! Good for you.”
I could actually feel my smile as it stretched across my face.
“Y-e-s!” My free fist pumped the air. “We did it, little dog, we did it!”
Shadow’s reward: not one, but three of her favourite liver treats, and a series of tight, ecstatic hugs.
After that, my spirits soared with every step we took along the reservoir’s wide path.
“’Morning,” came the usual greeting, as dogs and owners passed us, in pairs and in groups.
“Morning,” I echoed, nearly giddy with excitement now.
I was oblivious to my body as I walked, longer and faster than I’d been able to walk in months.
I felt a space opening up around me, like a pair of welcoming arms.
Granting me access, at last, to that exclusive club, and issuing me a lifetime membership.
For as long as I had my Shadow.
Written by Nomi Berger. Nomi is the bestselling author of seven novels and one work of non-fiction. She lives in Toronto with her first pet and the love of her life, her adopted dog, Shadow. She now devotes her writing skills and energy to helping as many animal rescue organizations as possible.