Harley’s World

Harley led me out of a mental ravine today. My day was busy but unproductive. I was pensive, but off-kilter. You know those days when you feel like everyone can see right through you? Your thoughts are unguarded and laid bare? It’s like showing up to what you think is a costume party dressed as a clown—full make-up and the red nose—only find it wasn’t a costume party after all. That was my day.

I pushed away from my desk late in the afternoon and turned myself over to his kind of therapy. We went for a long walk at Fort Lowell Park. We went at his pace, a pace I knew would reset my clock and my priorities. I made a conscious decision to keep the leash loose, never letting it tighten. I wanted to follow him today.

He led me past the ramadas, through the baseball outfields, around the duck-filled pond and through the pecan orchard. He circled us back though the lush soccer fields, past the playground filled with giggling children and parents pushing their swings. By the end of the walk, my head was clear, my confidence restored. I thanked him with a monstrous hug as he stood in the back of the Subaru. He leaned his chest into mine and encircled my neck with his.

I’d say his ability to reset my balance was a result of the relationship we’ve built during our many years together, but I’ve watched him do similar things on our visits to juvenile detention, albeit more subtle displays, but with the same results.

At the start of each visit, he walks into a living unit, introduces himself to every kid, then finds that one who needs him the most and is likely to accept his gift. His methods are clear and unmistakable, his execution like clockwork.

Harley starts with the head. He sniffs the mouth, then the nose, then the hair. If the teens allow it, he’ll try for a more personal sniff but if they push him away, he turns and gives them the big dog lean—his hip on their thigh or knee. At this point most kids will put their hand on his back—that’s his signal to have a seat. He’ll lie at (often, on) their feet and stay there as long as he can. Sometimes I’ll ask him to come to me or to stand to illustrate a point about dog anatomy or canine communication. What most of these kids don’t realize is that he’s already communicating with each one of them.

But that one kid gets it. He knows that Harley feels good under his fingertips. He knows that he enjoys his warmth, loves the feel of his fur, the smell of his coat. That child slips into Harley’s world where he’s no longer a juvenile offender, confined to a cement cell, surrounded by others who have made serious mistakes and have been caught.

No, he’s wrapped up in Harley now. He’s back home snuggling or wrestling or playing with his own dog. He’s back in his own clothes, loose jeans and a favorite T-shirt, out of the drab olive, brown and tan scrub-like uniforms. No one is judging, no one is watching. He’s showing Harley love. And he’s receiving Harley’s love, no strings attached. As I know firsthand, it’s easy to get lost in his world.

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