This morning as Angus and I walked through the park, I noticed a bicyclist coming up behind us. There was nothing to do but step off into the sodden grass and move 6 feet away. I made Angus sit, the bicyclist pedaled past, and we resumed our walk, calm but with wet feet.
In these days of being forced to stay close to home there seem to be more folks in the park than ever, and Angus and I encounter people no matter where or what time of day we walk. We see people cutting across the grass straight toward us as we round a corner, or lying in hammocks strung up in odd corners of the park, or jogging along the narrow wooded path we like to take in the mornings.
Most people cut a wide berth around us, but if they don’t we just cross the street. Sometimes the park is so busy we are zigzagging back and forth all the way down a block. At times there is nowhere to walk except right down the middle of the roadway.
We are finding our rhythm, just as everyone is. And I am pleased to tell you that Angus’ rhythm is now mostly a peaceful one.
After 2½ years of what felt like constant training, Angus has calmed down. Don’t get me wrong — he is still reactive. He still has his difficult moments, especially when there are rabbits. But he is getting pretty good at impulse control, and most days he walks sedately and keeps his cool.
The change has been gradual. I couldn’t see progress day to day, but I can see it year to year. On walks a year ago, Angus pulled hard. He insisted on walking as far out in front of me as the leash would allow, and he barked ferociously at any dog he saw or heard.
This is no longer the case. Part of the solution has been — in addition to patience and persistence — social distancing. Angus and I were social distancers long before social distancing was a term.
Angus has finally figured out that if he is far enough away from another dog — say, across the street — there’s no need to bark. He looks at the dog, and if he looks back at me without barking, he gets rewarded. This is what the trainers recommended a year ago, and it’s finally sinking in. (Mostly.)
To keep his attention on me, I click my tongue, I jiggle the leash, I reach out and touch him. Often, I keep up a running patter. “Wow, look at those bluebells,” I might say, passing a front garden. “I wonder why mine didn’t take.” Or, “Yes, that is a squirrel, but you don’t need to chase him.” Or, “Wow, the smell of fresh-mown grass is so great.”
Sometimes I sing, usually Richard Thompson’s “Walking the Long Miles Home,” because that is what Angus and I are usually doing.
It all seems to work — the talking, the singing, the poking, the clicking. If he’s focused on me, he’s less likely to scan the horizon with his border collie intensity for rabbits or other dogs.
We still can’t pass another dog closely, but these days nobody passes anyone closely. Crossing the street no longer looks hostile — it’s now the responsible thing to do.
I know that COVID-19 restrictions are starting to ease up. Restaurants are coming back, bookstores are reopening, people are allowed to gather in larger groups. But social distancing has become a good habit for Angus and me, and I think we are going to practice it, oh, forever.
So if you see us coming and we veer across the street, know that it’s not you, it’s us. We might smile and wave and we might even sing, but everyone is happier when we don’t get too close.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. She has been writing about her rescue dog, Angus, since he was 3 months old. Read all of the stories at startribune.com/puppy.