Many years ago, I promised Helen that I would take her to the ocean. I imagined that she’d love the novel smells of ocean life, the feel of the wet sand between her toes, the splash of the salt water on her legs, and the ocean breeze flipping her ears while we walked the shoreline as the tide washed in.
Earlier this month, I finally made good on that promise. Kathy, Helen, Half Moon, Andy, and I made the six-hour drive to Oceanside, just north of San Diego for our first beach excursion. For so long, I had imaged how much Helen would love the adventure of traveling to a new place, exploring the sea grass and kelp littering the beach, rollicking in the surf, maybe paddling out a little ways in her life jacket while I stayed close by with her leash in hand, then resting at my feet afterward on a cafe patio while I stroked her velvet ear.
It wasn’t until we met our friends Maureen and Lon and their dog Jasper, for dinner that my image of the perfect weekend for Helen started to crack. I was staring into the gulf between fantasy and reality.
Here’s what my dreamy images managed to block out. Helen can be a nervous girl. She’s gotten better by spending more time welcoming clients at A Loyal Companion, but at her core, she is much more relaxed around people and spaces she knows well (like mother, like daughter.) Eating on patios isn’t her favorite thing, nor is walking through new spaces with lots of activity and noises.
We hit the beach on our first morning in Oceanside. This was supposed to be the highlight, the experience I had promised Helen so many years ago. If you’ve taken a dog to the beach, you know it’s often not as simple as you had imagined. Now picture taking three dogs (a senior and two with mobility-challenges — one in a cart and one toddling along) and all their gear, including life jackets, towels, beach tent, bowls, fresh water, and more. Needless to say, we looked like the Clampetts trudging down the beach.
Finally unpacked and set up for the day, I donned Helen’s life jacket and lead her toward the water. In nearly nine years of having a canine mobility center with a pool, Helen has voluntarily walked into the water three times. She is not a water dog. (Ironically, she’s a beautiful swimmer. Go figure.) She prefers to sit on the deck and watch other dogs swim. Occasionally, she’ll wander down the ramp to the water line, get a small drink, give me a kiss, then walk back up and lie down on the deck. But in my head, I really believed this time would be different.
I had been so enthralled by the idea of sharing what I thought would be a wonderful experience for her that I’d neglected to consider how SHE might experience it. I was overcome with craving something for Helen that she herself didn’t want. And it was so easy. The thought of the two of us playing the water, her jumping through the incoming waves, frolicking in the tide pools. I was intoxicated by the joy I thought we’d both experience.
I’ve always been very careful not to limit the experiences I offer my dogs. I believe that mobility challenges are just that — challenges, not barriers. I didn’t want Helen’s age-related physical challenges or her apprehension to keep her from what I thought would be amazing experience. But amazing for who?
To be fair, she didn’t hate the ocean. She didn’t come away from the experience physically or emotionally scarred, but she was exhausted by it and clear that one ocean trip was enough.
In sharing the experience with a client, I realized that our ocean sojourn was learning opportunity. So here’s what I came away with. The decisions I made, I made out of love and a desire to make her happy. I miscalculated, yes, but my intentions were solid (and also another brick in that road to Hell).
I’ve made another decision: to stay true to what I know Helen loves. She is a mountain dog. She loves the trails, the smell of the pines, the soft dirt and mud in her paws, the alpine air ruffling her coat.
The Monday after we returned, Helen and I drove up to Mt. Lemmon with Maureen and Jasper. THIS is Helen’s happy place. She scrabbled over the scree-littered trails and went full-on mountain goat on the boulders along the ridge line, stopping only to smell the wonders of the forest and breathe in the peace. I stood behind her, enveloped by her joy and serenity.
I’ll never find a place Helen loves as much as the mountains, so I’ve resolved to stop trying. I’ve put a note in my travel bag that says, “If you’re not going to the mountains, turn around.” No worries. The GPS is already programmed for the Lemmon Rock trail. I can’t wait to hike with her again.