It’s a sticky afternoon in June and I’m standing in a manicured field in Long Island. There’s a leash attached to my belt loop. On the other end of the leash is a blonde woman named Mandi barking out commands.
“Go left, doggie! Now sit… SIT!! I SAID SIT!”
My threadbare Target sneakers sink into the grass and I survey the half dozen other dog-human pairs on the lawn. To my left is a team of exuberant Finns, shouting increasingly ludicrous commands at their own leashed human. To my right, a Manhattan socialite’s leash dangles idly in her hand as she pauses to check her texts. Weaving her way through the cloud is our workshop leader, a world-renowned dog trainer known for her application of Buddhist theory to dog aggression. She nervously fiddled with her Janet Jackson headset mic as she glides towards us, her yoga bellbottoms skirting the grass.
I shift my weight to one side and toss my head over my shoulder to address my sadistic walker. I flash a disarming smile. “Is it ok if I don’t crawl right now?”
After half a decade of working in high kill shelters, wrangling aggressive dogs and investigating animal abuse, I was selected out of the blue by my professional mentor to attend an elite dog training seminar at no cost. This was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak career, a daily routine of watching formerly beloved pets suffer and turn to dust, then trekking back to my bare-walled rented room in Crown Heights. I spent the next few weeks anticipating this once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn from one of the best trainers in the world.
I wake up the first morning of the seminar before dawn, tumbling out of my apartment and onto Nostrand Avenue in the dark to make my way to the Long Island Railroad. This is the first time that I’ve been out earlier than the Trini matrons serving steaming hot doubles on the corner, and the emptiness of the normally bustling street is unnerving. I wince at the cost of the weekly unlimited card from Brooklyn to the far end of Long Island, but convinced that this is probably a great opportunity and I’m being a whiny baby, I board the next Long Island-bound train and slouch into an empty seat.
Two hours later, I arrive at the Walt Whitman birthplace, our classroom for the week. I’m fifteen minutes late, and when I walk in I’m confronted by a sea of frowning white faces. I break out into an apologetic smile as I shuffle to an empty seat in the back. On my way there, I’m unceremoniously handed a hefty packet detailing the week’s activities, which are scheduled in 20-minute intervals. I lean over to the woman next to me. “I’m as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I’m as good as the best, rite? Whitman quotes, ehh??” I say with a nudge. I’m met with a blank stare.
The workshop leader is at the front of the classroom assigning teams. She stutters names into her Janet Jackson mic from a crumpled printout that she grips in her sweaty hands. “The final group will be… Mandi.. ummmm ::crumples::, Shuyen… ahhhhh ::nervous cough:: and… Kelly! Oh, also Shuyen, she came all the way from Taiwan to join us! So uh… welcome, Shuyen?” She hastily jams the sweaty papers under her arms to clap. Murmurs arise from the group, along with some piecemeal applause. Shuyen bolts up in her seat in the front row, misinterpreting this as an opportunity to introduce herself.
“Hello, everyone, I am Shuyen, I have a Golden Retriever, I love Golden Retrievers, I am a Golden Retriever trainer in Taiwan. I am so happy to be here, and I want to see Times Square after today is over!” She grins and waves vigorously at the crowd, and is met with a few condescending chuckles.
The workshop leader launches into a breakdown of her methods: a grab bag of New Age healing, pop psychology, and general observations made about her own dog, an elderly lab named Goober. By lunch, we learn that the core competencies of Dog Buddhism are as following:
- Dog walks are guided meditation sessions.
- Always let the dog decide how long they want to meditate, and which path they want to take to enlightenment.
- When in doubt, try some leash reiki.
In short, we are expected to turn bad dogs into bodhisattvas in 5 days.
We watch what feels like hours of boring home videos of Goober
aimlessly wandering practicing mindfulness in the Alaskan wilderness. Questions are raised about the practicality of Dog Buddhism in New York City. They go unanswered.
As we move to the sprawling backyard for the hands-on segment of the day, I realize that my free attendance at this seminar comes with a catch. In the interest of sparing actual dogs from the discomfort of being used as a teaching tool, the auditors like myself are to replace them – by literally being led around on a leash and mimicking the actions of an actual dog. I’m to be completely silent for the duration of the week in order to accommodate the registrants like Mandi and Shuyen, who paid $3,700 to attend.
On the way home each day, sunburnt and sweaty, I pore over the lecturer’s widely published books and lecture materials, wondering whether this is a scam, a cult, a pyramid scheme, or a brilliant exercise that will lead to personal enlightenment. I practice the leash reiki on my evening walks with my own dog, to no avail – a cat darts out from an adjacent bush and as I try to relay gentle finger suggestions that he rethink his mental orientation, the leash slips out of my hands. He rumbles after the cat and out of sight. He eventually does succumb to mindfulness; in what was surely an attempt to respect the cat’s opposing path, he tramps back around the corner five minutes later covered in burrs and the stench of hot garbage. Maybe I’m missing something, I think, as we amble back home through the dimly lit side streets, the day’s heat radiating from the cracked pavement and amplifying the trash smell.
It’s finally the last day of my personal hell, and Mandi is taking an uneasy pleasure in the act of forcing me, a young black woman, to my knees. Her commands have been escalating in scope. “Flip onto your back and roll around!” she cries out as I attempt to scale a small hill. “Stop and scratch your ear!!!” She doubles over with laughter as I look plaintively towards the workshop leader, who shrugs her shoulders and directs her attention towards a paying customer.
As the excruciating afternoon draws to a close, Shuyen pulls me aside. “I want to say something, just you, alone,” she implores in halting English.
I don’t remember the exact details of her impassioned speech, but here are the phrases that I was able to decipher through my white hot rage:
- Black skin is disgusting; as if it is dirty and cannot be washed clean.
- She makes a scrubbing gesture to ensure that this doesn’t get lost in translation.
- Most black people are homeless, or they are rappers, or they are both.
- She met some once, on a day spent volunteering in a soup kitchen.
- My black skin is lighter, which indicates that I must try my hardest to bathe.
- Which is commendable.
- She was so happy to know me because I was the first black person she had ever seen smile.
The blood rushes to my head, and for the first time in five days I’m able to mutter a single phrase – “Thank you” – before I turn and calmly rush out of the building with hot tears streaming down my face. A few minutes later, my phone lights up with a text from Mandi.
“Yo, where u at, its time to LEASH UP LMFAO xx”
I stormed back to the unshaded field, but this time without my signature smile. I drag through the remainder of the exercises. Triumphant trainers, demonstrating their newly-minted mindful dog walking techniques, are barely able to contain their excitement to take on the streets of Manhattan with an aura of enlightenment. When it comes time for her final presentation, Shuyen stands up before the entire class and reiterates my ability to re-author her black disgust. I sit silently, my mouth twisted into a shape that someone from another planet might maybe refer to as a smile, looking around to see my outrage (or even mild discomfort?) reflected in the faces of the other attendees. Instead, they offer wan applause, then turn away to chat or glance at their phones.
I stand up, collect my stuff, and walk out.
The next day, as I hunch over my bedroom desk scrolling through my Facebook feed with glazed eyes, I’m startled when a photo of myself pops up. There I am, stooped over on a verdant lawn with a leash tied to my belt loop. Mandi, the subject of the photo, is towering behind me, hand on her hip, head thrown back, sporting a triumphant smile. I click on the photo to zoom in and see my face, glistening in a sweaty sheen, turned towards the camera. My mouth is buckled into an uneasy grimace.
I untag myself.