I walk my dogs on the same route every morning. We have a ritual. We all know what success looks like. The three of us have an agreement, based on trial and error, rehearsals and countless performances of the activity. 

I put on my shoes sitting in a chair nearby the front door, or standing towards the wall to slip on a pair. The dogs are sitting on the sofa with my wife or laying on a dog bed in the living room, everyone still calm from a long night’s sleep. Their heads move to a more alert position as I bend to tie or look down to slide loafers on. They gaze in my direction waiting for additional clues that the plan is indeed to go outside with them. 

C’mon, they gotta know, right? What else would be happening?

Once I slip the leashes off their hooks the game is afoot. Fiona leaps from the sofa to join me. She begins a steady trot, moving in a circle around me, doing her best to be patient while I attend to her considerably older companion. If I put the leash on her first the circling will result in a leather bound pairing of my legs and her eight inch tall self. So, we put the leash on Baker first. He is the 16 year old elder statesman and will calmly stand and face the door once he has been leashed. 

We are ready to go. Fiona darts ahead through the door. Her priority is to be first, always. Baker and I may want to lead at times, but in this phase of our ritual we gift Fiona the advance position every time. We have rehearsed this scene many times. The positions everyone takes and the timing we all work off is agreed upon by all parties. We can all hope for a smooth exit to the building because of our agreed roles in the process. And, interestingly, we needed no words to work it all out.

The three of us walk down the block. We stop for smells. There are lots of dogs in the neighborhood, and plenty of evidence of previous dogs being walked are sniffed out. 

The first turn is stressful. We round the corner to the busiest street on our trip around the block. Baker marks the trees along the way, insuring his scent will be available to the next walker. Fiona goes in protection mode, announcing each passing car or person with varying degrees of suspicion. She quickens her breath, emits a low growl or sounds the full alarm by barking depending on her interpretation of the the threat level. Kids in backpacks heading to school, pass. Females with handbags walking to a car, suspicious. Males with gear bags slung over shoulders, criminal. 

I welcome the next turn because the street becomes calm. There is no traffic and we rarely find other people walking at the exact same time as us. This portion of the walk is where joy may be had. I contemplate my day. I  notice the sounds of birds, the shape of a bush and the decorative molding of eaves on a building. The dogs move along grassy areas on either side of the sidewalk, crisscrossing as they are pulled by odors beyond human understanding. 

My frame of mind will dictate the pace of the remainder of the walk. I may be in rush, and say “let’s go” to quicken the schedule. Or, I may be peaceful, and grant the dogs the luxury of creating the timetable for how the walk will unfold. 

In either case, Fiona and Baker have plenty to work on. They have grass, bushes, flowers, trees, rocks, sticks, squirrels, birds, hydrants, lights, wrappers, mud, gum, ants, beetles, worms, pennies, cracks, holes, rain, snow, ice, locust, flies, feces, cans, bottles, glass, paper, plastic, hair, mold, blood, acorns, leaves, pinecones, toys, sand, seeds, salt, string, mittens, cards, candy, roots, poles, signs, ivy, puddles, cars, strollers, pipes, manholes, pumpkins, mulch, bricks, pots, planters, lights, lamps, posts, bags, sprinklers, reflections, steps, thorns, gates, bark, stumps, screws, tissues, wires, drains, hoses, tinfoil, lids, butts, vents, drips, rope, statues, furniture and fencing. 

The volume of work they can engage in during a 12 minute walk is staggering.

Of course, the mission of the walk is known to all of us. Fiona and Baker understand the reason for the walk is to go to the bathroom. They know this time period is when they are expected to compete this work. Again, no confusion about what success will look like for this activity. The dogs also know they have authority as to when they choose to complete the goal, so long as it occurs within the deadline. 

My dogs have the freedom to accomplish their main work objective early on, or the act(s) can happen as late as walking back up the path to our building. The timing of the agreed upon goals does not change the walk. If they go to the bathroom right away, I don’t turn around and insist the walk is now over. Nor do the dogs wait until the very end just to insure they have opportunity to get all their other work done. We have an agreement. The outing will follow a planned experience. 

I can tell they enjoy the work, far more than just going to the bathroom. 

There are neighbors on the next block that recently moved in. I don’t know who they are, their background or their ages. We have never met. But as new homeowners they were on a mission to upgrade the place. They replaced the high fencing on the side of the lot that was in disrepair. Each day we cut through a walkway between an adjacent apartment building and their home so improving that little walk was appreciated. 

Then they tore up their front lawn. They replaced all the grass by digging up everything, turning the dirt and laying down fresh strips of grass grown elsewhere. Not an uncommon approach, but one that requires the lawn owner to protect the newly laid turf. Until the fresh grass has a chance to couple nicely with its new environment the recommended behavior is to keep people from walking on it. One should also avoid letting dogs tear it up as they go about their business. 

Once the grass was in place, instructions appeared to let me and my dogs know the fresh lawn needed to be avoided. The message is hand written. A plastic for sale sign that had legs built in already provided a convenient method for the homeowners to tape a piece of cardboard over it with the following text. 

“DOG OWNERS. CHEMICALLY TREATED LAWN. Please keep your dogs off the lawn as the chemicals with harm your dog if ingested.”

The word harm is underlined twice. 

First reaction. Oh, I need to keep the dogs off the lawn. 

Second reaction. What kind of people use chemicals on their lawn that could harm their neighbors dogs if ingested? That’s not right. 

Third. Wait, I witnessed the installation being done by landscapers, not the homeowners. What kind of landscapers use chemicals on a client’s lawn that could harm neighborhood dogs? How would they ever get insurance if that was their approach? That can’t be right. 

My thoughts continue this way. 

If the landscapers had used chemicals that were harmful when ingested they would have provided professional signage to indicate such. They would have roped off the area to demonstrate a need for caution. This did not happen, so I came to believe no such chemicals were used. 

And if potentially hurtful lawn treatments were not deployed then the people who posted the hand made sign have created a false narrative just to scare me into staying off their lawn. And if that was indeed what happened their disrespect for me was two fold: one is the lie itself and the other how little effort went into the visual presentation of the warning. Rude. 

This all pissed me off. The whole crazy setup made me angry every day for two weeks as I passed by, stopping of course to deliberately let my dogs work on their lawn. 

A few days later, two doors down, another household tore up their front yard. I exchanged smiles and hellos several times as we passed by, observing the hard work of gardening. These homeowners opted to plant seeds, instead of using the rolled up pre-grown turf. Their plan required diligence. Seeds need watering until they grow into sturdy blades. Plus, these neighbors also needed to request that people and dogs stay off the grass until such time as the lawn was hearty enough to withstand dog work. 

In this case, a homemade, handmade solution is also fashioned. The next day appeared a low suggestion of fencing in the form of wooden sticks and ribbons. At six foot intervals the eight inch high wood pegs were lined up along the edges of the yard. Then one inch ribbons were tied to the posts, a low rope a few inches from the ground and a higher one close to the top of the markers. The setup created a strong visual indicator as to what is being requested. 

My dogs can easily hop over the ribbons. Had their been a squirrel, Fiona would have ignored the structure and charged. But without provocation, without written instructions and without threats of being harmed, my dogs and I fell gently into a stride in which we stay on the sidewalk and avoid the newly planted lawn. We did not need to be told what to do. We didn’t need to be warned that not following instructions may result in illness. 

Both homeowners kept their approach to keeping dogs off their lawn up at the same time. For a few more weeks we strolled past the ribbons with ease. And then we’d stop to smell the failing fresh rolled grass near the threatening keep off poster. 

A few months later it was all over, so I thought. I just came across a new setup. Erected across the front edge of the offensive neighbors yard are now two feet high, metal fence units. They are clearly arranged to thwart dogs moving along the sidewalk. In addition, where the paved path leading to their front door starts, are multiple crisscrossing two inch yellow ribbons. Not the calm white fabric ribbons the other neighbors used. This is plastic material with the word caution appearing in repetition every foot, in English a Spanish. 

My takeaway.  How we communicate our requests determines how we are perceived and how likely our goals will be achieved. 

My dogs and I need no words to arrange ourselves for a successful walk. We have agreed on rituals, positions and preferences. We have rehearsed. We have a shared vision of what success will look like. 

If instructions are required, there is a way to indicate the desired outcome engaging respect, clarity and fairness. We can hope for a positive outcome because we have rehearsed, planned and agreed to cooperate as a team. 

That’s planned optimism.