Brad went on a lot of walks, one in the morning, one at lunch, and another after dinner. Unlike most people, who kept a steady pace when they walked, slowing occasionally to admire a particularly pretty flower, or to peek on their neighbors when some activity in a lighted window drew their attention, Brad would come to a complete stop and fidget in place without looking at anything in particular, then walk another half block and fidget some more. Whenever Brad encountered his neighbors next door out walking their two golden retrievers, he’d cross the street and get as much distance on the dogs as he could. His neighbors reassured him that their dogs were friendly, but Brad still kept his distance. They thought it sad that a middle-aged man was afraid of dogs when they loved theirs so much.
Brad responded to their reassurances by saying things like, “He acts this way because they make him nervous. I don’t understand why he should be nervous when he’s the size of Jupiter and they’re nothing more than Plutinos.”
Many people talked about themselves in third person, especially when addressing their fears, so his neighbors accepted it in good stride. Brad was a good neighbor, always willing to lend a tool or give a helping hand, so when they called him Crazy Brad behind his back, they meant it with neighborly endearment, not meanness.
* * *
Brad had a dog. It showed up on his front porch as nothing more than a ball of black-and-brown fur that traveled around on four stubby legs, putting its mouth on everything that looked even slightly edible. The puppy was so tiny Brad naturally named him Tiny, but Tiny grew into a great beast of a Rottweiler so large that Brad often thought he might be part English mastiff. He was a good dog, but he had his issues. The biggest one being fear of other dogs. He’d go crazy at the end of his leash when he encountered them on a walk. It had gotten so bad that Brad timed his walks to avoid other dogs, and just the sight of another dog sent a spike of adrenaline through Brad’s system, even when Tiny wasn’t with him.
Brad decided it was time he did something to help his best friend enjoy his walks before the both of them were complete wrecks. He found a well-reviewed book on the Internet about aggressive dogs, ordered it, and when it arrived, he dug right in. But by the time he’d finished reading it he felt overwhelmed and at a loss as to where to start. Self-help and do-it-yourself books often left him feeling this way. He’d start out reading with such promise, only to feel stuck in an even deeper hole by the time he reached the end. It was like a jigsaw puzzle spilled on the floor and he didn’t know which piece to pick up first. That had actually happened to him once and it was good he wasn’t alone because his friend knew right away which piece to pick up first. Brad was often amazed at how knowing what to do came so naturally to others. He had to think about everything before he could make up his mind what to do. And even then it could be up for debate all over again if he sensed the slightest doubt about his decision, leaving him paralyzed with indecision once again.
One of the things he loved so much about Tiny was that he always knew what he wanted and went straight at it to get it. He was decisiveness on steroids. Which was another reason Brad hated to curb Tiny’s nature on their walks together, so he decided to bring in a specialist, someone who had dealt with dogs with Tiny’s issues before and had a track record of success. He asked around at the pet supply stores for recommendations and one name kept coming up, so he gave him a call.
* * *
Willie’s dog training appointment was with a man who had called about his dog acting badly on walks when seeing other dogs. After the man had described his dog’s behavior and answered a few questions, Willie thought it sounded like a case of leash aggression and was comfortable saying he could help the man out, but he wasn’t over-confident. He’d learned from experience that life had too much of a sense of humor to make things easy. Willie liked dealing with leash-aggressive dogs. Much of the behavior was learned, and thus could be unlearned, and a lot of what triggered the behavior came from the owner, and in some instances the owner found it more difficult to change their own behavior than their dog’s. But the end result was usually a huge improvement from where they started, and that was why Willie liked these sorts of cases.
The client’s house was in the suburbs and typical of the houses in the neighborhood, medium-size single story with an attached garage for two. The yard was groomed, the car in the driveway fairly new, and the client was neatly dressed when he answered the door and invited Willie in. It wasn’t until they were comfortably seated around the kitchen table that Willie sensed something was askew. There weren’t any food or water bowls in sight, no dog toys on the floor or fur showing on Brad’s navy blue sweater, and the house lacked even a faint hint of that distinct dog odor Willie could always smell.
“He really likes you,” Brad said, looking in the direction of Willie’s knees. “He’s very choosy about who he likes. He’s a good judge of character, too. I’ve had several friends who he didn’t like, and it was good that I lost touch with them because I later realized they were taking advantage of my good nature.” Brad smiled at Tiny. “You must have treats on you. He really loves treats. Oh stop that, Tiny. You’re getting drool all over the man’s jeans.”
Now Willie knew what was askew. Maybe the whole thing was a gag, so he decided to play along. “Why don’t you put Tiny’s leash on and I’ll take him for a short walk around the block. That’ll give me a chance to see him in action.”
“Do you want me to come?” Brad asked.
“Not at first. Let’s see how he does on his own. Many times these behaviors can be initiated by the owner without them knowing it.”
“Okay.” Brad went to the hall closet, got Tiny’s leash, put it on him and offered it to Willie. “Here you go.”
Willie grabbed the air where the leash should be and walked to the front door. “Come along, Tiny,” he said as he opened it.” Then to Brad, “We won’t be gone long, just around the block.”
“I’ll be here,” Brad said, his eyes following them as they left. “Be a good boy, Tiny.”
Willie headed down the block, still holding the imaginary leash, but once around the corner and out of sight of the house, he dropped the pretense. He was in over his head and didn’t know what to do. He considered just getting into his car and leaving, but then if it weren’t a gag the guy would think he’d made off with his imaginary dog. So he decided to play along with it for the duration of the lesson. He’d get paid with a check and just tear it up after he left and chalk it up to being one of those weird home visits every dog trainer gets.
When he got back to the house after walking around the block, he was all ready to give his accounting of Tiny’s behavior and what Brad would need to do to help Tiny overcome his fear of other dogs, but Willie didn’t get a chance to start.
“Where is he? Where’s Tiny?” Brad’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “What have you done with my dog?”
Willie felt a mild panic coming on. “He’s right here,” he said, offering the imaginary leash, but not knowing if the dog was there or not. He had no idea what Brad was seeing. “He did really well,” Willie added lamely.
Brad took the leash and stared at it. “How could he have done well if he broke the leash? Look at it! It’s only half a leash. What kind of dog trainer are you that you lose my dog and aren’t even aware of it?” He crowded Willie back out the front door, showing more assertiveness than he had in years. “You need to leave and I need to go find my dog.” He closed the door to his house, locked it, and stepped around Willie. “I should’ve known Tiny was too much dog for anyone but me to handle.”
Willie watched Brad wander down the block.
“Tiny! Here boy!” Brad called out. “Come on home, boy!”
Willie was at a loss. Even if this whole thing was a wind up, it was making him sad. A lost dog is a lost dog, imagined or not.
* * *
Tiny never did come home, and Brad went through a period of mourning for him, but eventually he found himself considering getting another dog. But this time instead of a puppy magically showing up on his doorstep, his neighbors next door had a litter of golden retrievers and thought Brad would be the perfect match for one of their puppies. They saw him out on walks more often than most who owned dogs and looked like he could use the company, and there was no way he could be afraid of a puppy. They didn’t mind if he was a little batty, most dog owners were. At least with a dog at his side during his walks he’d look like he was talking to it and not some imaginary friend, which was hard to pull off when older than six.
The golden retriever puppy was a perfect match, and Brad doted on her. Being the literalist that he was, he named her Goldie, and they often went on walks with the neighbors next door and their two golden retrievers, Duke and Dolly, Goldie’s sire and dame. It was then that Brad often told the story of the idiot dog trainer who had lost his beloved dog, Tiny. And the neighbors, who had heard the story many times but knew how difficult it was to lose a dog, would reassure him again by saying, “Without losing Tiny, you wouldn’t have found Goldie, and she really loves you, Brad. We all love you.”