In Tandem

by Maria Theresa Maggi on January 30, 2019

"Approaching Sunlight," chalk pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa M

“Approaching Sunlight,” chalk pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa Maggi

Last weekend at the winter market in the Lincoln County Fairgrounds building, a woman approached me, Cotton and the friend we came with, as I was paying for a hand knit hat. I was turned away from her to hand my card to the carftswoman, but I heard the familiar question, “what kind of dog is that?” (or remark what a beautiful dog!)

For over ten years now, I have been fielding this question in public, first with Romeo, now with Cotton, sometimes still, around our neighborhood, with both of them. But since Cotton has arrived in his training to take over Romeo’s public duties, it’s now he who draws the questions and wonder.

I also heard my friend, somewhat protectively, trying to head any unwarranted petting off at the pass, with “he’s a service dog.” People don’t often see those instructions on his vest, either because he is close to me or because they don’t notice or want to notice or who knows why. Though it can be tiring, I have come to accept that walking around with one or both of my Silkens, despite the purpose being that I am able to walk around with more grace, ease and spacial stability, more quickly and straightly, is often actually what I imagine it might be like to walk around with a movie star. This makes me laugh to myself since I have this idea that I’m anonymously out in the world, moving with ease, unnoticed. Not so.

When I turned to address this woman and answer her question graciously (as I always try to do), I saw that she would not interlope into our space. I’ve been to this winter market a handful of times since it came indoors for the season, and each time it’s been with the friend who played defense while  I paid for my purchase, so she has become accustomed to how visible we are and how likely it is that someone will approach us, sometimes in the middle of a transaction I’m trying to manage or logistics like distributing weight in bags or who will carry what. She’s seen me navigate away if we’re going down an aisle where there is an unruly smaller dog close to the floor looking for someone to yap at, too. She’s seen the spectrum of what I have to negotiate in order to have the help Cotton so seamlessly provides me.

This particular woman, however, stayed in her own space and after remarking on what a beautiful dog he was and sincerely wanting to know his breed, said something about how beautifully he did his job. She said she worked for the Animal Shelter and that our connection was remarkable.

“I’ve seen you here several times,” she said, “and I’ve watched the two of you. You don’t walk together, you move together.” He’s very tuned in to you.” And then she said, as if in awe, “It’s really beautiful to see. Thank you.”

I found myself telling her that yes, though it was subtle, I was able to entrain myself to Cotton and he to what I was asking of him, and thus, I always had a marker for where I was in a crowded and highly dynamic and stimulated space, and it made a world of difference in terms of walking more straightly and even more quickly if needed, and was much more fun than my walking stick (which honestly I haven’t used in years, except for the time before I got Cotton and Romeo injured his foot on a piece of cut glass.)

I was able to say this to her and also that my arm did not get tired from grasping the walking stick, all because of what she saw in us and what she said about it.

I realized that so often when I say to people, “it’s subtle, but it makes a big difference,” often as a way to quickly summarize its importance and move on, that I’m also on some level apologizing for looking “normal” and not seeming to need the help of a service dog for mobility’s sake. But this woman was not questioning that, she was complimenting me on how well we moved together, and in the process educating me about exactly what Cotton and I do together, so naturally that I hardly think of it at all.

She reminded me of my former neighbor in Moscow, who many years ago first noticed this phenomenon between me and Romeo. A retired horse trainer, he stopped me on the trail one day and said, “that dog is helping you.” When I demurred politely saying “do you really  think so?”  he made me listen again by using his credentials. “I trained horses for years and I know a helper animal when I see one. I watched the two of you go down the icy steps back at the corner. He paces himself to you. He waits for you.” The validation this neighbor provided me gave me the courage to take Romeo in to my doctor and have him watch us walk together. I was told I was walking more straightly and more quickly, and that he would write a letter to that effect. That in turn gave me the courage one day to take Romeo into the co-op with me to buy a bunch of green onions. The manager said to me, I know he’s helping you, I can see that, but if you bring him back he needs to wear a vest to that effect.” And so we got a vest. And later when the city was going to ban dogs from the farmer’s market, which would have made it pretty hard for me to go there without Romeo, I worked with a service dog trainer who helps disabled individuals train their own dogs. After a couple of meetings to see how we did things she said, he’s doing what you want him to do, I don’t think he needs further training. He could pass muster in an airport.” And so my adventures traveling all the way to Portland, and then the coast with Romeo at my side, came to be. Though I never got the courage to board a plane with him, I sure remember the first time he went out to dinner with me in Portland at Blossoming Lotus. And on the bus down to Powell’s. That night as I lay under an old quilt in the bedroom at Mike and Kelly’s listening to the rain fall with Romeo at my feet, I gave him a pet and a heartfelt thank you out loud. He sighed deeply with contentment under my touch. He, too, knew we had accomplished something wonderful together.

I didn’t know then that I would move to Portland and after that at the suggestion of my vets I would find Cotton amongst the Silken community I became a part of. I didn’t know then that Romeo would understand why Cotton came into our lives, and not only accept him, but somehow also impart wordless knowledge of what his role was to be, so that he could step back and relax and enjoy his retirement. He turned 14 this past December.

I could say it’s because of an intuitive quality most Silkens seem to have that makes it second nature for them to sense what it is you want them to be, and to become that as a means of pleasing you. Many owners in the online groups I’m a part of have said as much.

I’ve watched Cotton learn from Romeo and also from me, at first learning how to walk with me down the steps, how to brace so I can get a hand up if I need it, how to stay with me, how to shop with me, and even how to curl up in the corner of the dentist cubicle while I get my teeth cleaned and fixed. And when he is off leash, how to read the ocean and trust my assessment of it and come back when I call him in order to be safe.

All of this, I finally must admit to myself, might  have everything to do with me, with what I’m asking them to do, and how I ask and expect and reward it, just by being who I am,.

In some organic way, I have been able to tune in to them and just know how to ask it, and receive it in return.

But what, exactly, is this illusive “it”?

As I write this sentence I am suddenly returned to a memory of my near death experience on the San Diego Freeway, and the ‘instruction” I received from what I call the two angels who kept me from leaving my body entirely, with the injunction to “go back and learn how to receive.” Just as on that autumn equinox day when I recalled the accident while my dogs had flanked themselves on either side of me, and evoked those angels enjoining me to learn how to receive, just writing the word “receive” above sent me a flash of new and instantaneous understanding: that I DO ask of them to move with me in this beautiful way, and in the asking I also learn how to receive their beautiful answer. I am doing the homework the angels at the accident gave me, as they returned me to my body and instructed me how to save my life. (If you haven’t yet, you can read more about this experience in the post Woosh.)

As Cotton and I and my friend walked away and out of the winter market, my friend said to me like, “Well, I guess you just never know what’s going to happen. That was not the usual encounter, and here I was all ready to defend and block!” And she laughed, wise and compassionate person that she is, who knows what the opportunity to receive looks like when she sees it. And so,  blessed with our encounter, out the door the three of us went, in tandem, into the unseasonably warm and bright January sun.

Maria (moonwatcher)






Leave a Comment

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marge Evans January 31, 2019 at 9:01 am

I don’t always comment on your writing. I want you to know what a gift it is to read your words.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi January 31, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Thank you so much, Marge. It really means a lot to me. <3


3 AmyLu February 1, 2019 at 7:46 pm

Maria, beautifully shared, as you always do. Thank you for sharing this story.

You have piqued my interest in this breed as helper animals. Do your silkens shed a lot? Thank you!


4 Maria Theresa Maggi February 1, 2019 at 10:20 pm

Hi AmyLu–I so appreciate your kind words. Thank YOU. Alas, my Silkens do shed a lot. It’s a price I am happy to pay in exchange for all they give me. 🙂


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