October 2013

Rebecca Silber

nonfiction

Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance by Janice Gary

For five years, Janice Gary walked her black Labrador Retriever and Rottweiler mix, Barney, daily in a large park near her house outside of Washington, D.C. To anyone passing by, they looked like any other human and canine pairing. After reading Gary's recently published memoir, Short Leash, it is evident that Gary and Barney have an uncommon story to tell. Short Leash chronicles the intimate saga of their unique companionship.

In her younger years, Gary experienced two traumatic events -- the suicide of her father and a brutal rape at the age of nineteen. The latter paralyzed Gary to the point that her "greatest ambition was whittled down to one overriding desire: to make sure that what happened to me would never happen again." Gary reveals early on in Short Leash that she depends on her dog, Barney, to feel safe and uses him as a crutch, just as she had done with two previous dogs. To Gary, Barney is "a guide dog for a special kind of blind: the rushed, the impatient, the one whose vision is obscured by a head full of thoughts of things future and past." Gary is incapable of being alone without panicking, without looking over her shoulder, and she is jarred into alertness by every noise that she hears. Gary's reliance on Barney to keep her safe is a method that perhaps serves her just as well, if not better, than any formal remedy.

Barney has his own troubles. He was violently attacked by another dog not long after Gary first found and adopted him as a stray in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot. After the attack, he began to display aggression toward any dog that came near him. Gary copes with his aggression with admirable, loving patience. In helping her deal with Barney's dog aggression, a veterinarian points out to Gary, "He's trying to protect you. That's what he's doing when he goes after another dog."

Short Leash develops in much the same way a person's history would unfold as you get to know her. The first three chapters are, for the most part, dog-walking scenes -- initially, the reader is just someone sauntering by Gary and Barney on a nature trail. Early on, before giving much background information, Gary describes Barney's aggression toward other dogs. It is an aggression so horrible that as I read about it I wanted to call Cesar Milan to help this lady. But Gary soon reveals what anybody passing her on a path would never know about Barney's past. It's not until the fourth chapter that Gary begins to talk about her own past. It isn't until chapter six that you find out the force behind Gary's uneasiness with life.

For Gary, the regular walks that she takes with Barney in a park are times of welcome respite. Gary and Barney discover the park and all of its twists and turns, trees, and birds. Gary ascertains that "for dogs, there is no self-questioning, no second guessing, no five freaking answers; there is only the immediate present, the Buddha-like ability to be with what is and to respond appropriately." Together in that park, they slow down, enjoy the surroundings, and try to overcome their emotional and physical pain -- eventually both conquering their greatest setbacks and fears. Gary learns to relax, live in the moment, and trust her instincts. Barney overcomes his aggression toward other dogs. Ultimately, there is a shift from Barney being Gary's protector to Gary becoming Barney's protector.

When she isn't writing about their walks, Gary writes of her life, the traumas as well as other past events that have brought her to the present -- she is married, working, and going to school to get her MFA in creative writing. Gary also writes in loving detail about Barney's declining health as he enters old age. She is aware of the limited time she has with Barney, and makes the reader aware of it too -- so much so that by the end of the book, any animal lover will be in tears. Gary's writing transitions smoothly back and forth between the present and the past. She also writes well about life from a dog's perspective, truly making Barney a main character in her memoir. The first person narrative in Short Leash is welcoming and casual; much of it is comprised of Gary's thoughts. Metaphors are sometimes forced and overused; this was the only thing that I found tiresome in the book.

Short Leash is a simple story about a lady walking her dog. It is Gary's vulnerability that makes the story both interesting and intricate -- she bravely lets the reader in on every thought and fear she has during the mundane task of dog walking. When she is walking her dog, Gary is also in the midst of a psychological battle -- wordlessly questioning every person she walks by, tensing at every faraway bark, every wooded trail entrance. She so desperately wants to walk slowly and live in the moment as Barney does, but first, Gary has decades of her past to confront. This is the hopeful story of the unlikely therapist she finds in a grocery store parking lot and the metaphorical and literal path they navigate together.

Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance by Janice Gary
Michigan State University Press
ISBN: 978-1611860726
246 pages