Praying Off-Leash

"Prayer is being on terms of friendship with God,

frequently conversing in secret

with Him who, we know, loves us.

(St. Teresa of Avila)


Due to COVID, I have been working from home over the past eighteen months. I have found myself praying during my lunch hour while walking the dog. Our dog, “Buttons”, a Tibetan terrier mix, and I plod along on the sidewalks of our suburban neighborhood. We take in the green lawns and colorful landscaping. My prayers include the Holy Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and the Sacred Heart prayer.


The highlight of my walk is the off-leash time at the park. There is a large grass field and a wooded area with tall pine trees.


Once the dog is off-leash, I hang the leash over my shoulders and the dog trails me, walks to the side of me, or walks ahead of me. It’s my favorite time of the walk. It is easier to focus on prayer, not having to stop and go as much compared to when I have the dog on the leash.


I am no dog expert but I would venture to say it’s also my dog’s favorite time as he gets to roam more freely and do his own thing. He just seems happier off-leash, running here and there, sniffing about.


Usually, my dog looks for food. Once, he found a live chicken in some shrubbery. I never thought I would someday be chasing a dog who, at the same time, was chasing a chicken. After the dust settled, I had to retrace my steps half-a-mile to find my Rosary which, during the zig-zag of the chase, must have gone flying out of my hand at one point.


More routinely, we come across other mutts (and their owners). There is “Kane”, a massive, dark-furred German shepherd (who is a sweetheart), with his younger female sidekick “Nova”, a slightly anxious but beautiful, light-colored German shepherd. “Bailey”, the Scottish terrier, who loves playing off-leash with my dog. A large, white (aristocratic) lab with the two-word name, “Marie Clare”.


There are always interruptions of one sort of another caused by picking up after the dog or a conversation with a neighbor. But that never seemed to interfere with prayer. Mostly, I found my prayers to be meditative and fruitful so I continued faithfully with them each day.


It seemed to me that I was just a little bit friendlier on my prayer walks, holding my Rosary in one hand and the dog leash in the other. I was a bit more open to really listening to a neighbor or dog owner tell a story. I was more at peace, glancing occasionally up at the sky thinking of His promise of eternal life. And when returning home, I was refreshed and ready to tackle life with renewed patience and energy.


Initially, I thought I would get a lot of questions about the Rosary dangling from my hand. Surprisingly, however, or perhaps not so, there is no desire to ask about religion. In probably hundreds of encounters and conversations, only two people asked. One, a lady, after seeing the Rosary, stated “I’m Jewish” and we had a short, pleasant conversation. The other, a young man, pointed to my hand and asked “Is that a Rosary?”. I replied “Yes.” He seemed to be in a hurry so that was that.


A few weeks ago my walking prayers went dry. It seemed as if things had become routine. The heat bothered me. My waves became less friendly. My mind would more frequently wander to work matters or chores that needed to be done around the house.


Then, near the end of one of my walks, unplanned, I started praying Psalm 23. I found myself reciting it very slowly. I got to the last verse.


Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.


The words got inside me and started to bounce around. The sheer goodness of God. His unfathomable Mercy. How much in need I am of Him. What a poor sinner and unprofitable servant I am, incapable of any good without Him. My need to completely surrender to Him.


I walked on. Silence enveloped me. I was completely at peace. Refreshed and aware of how deeply I am cared for by Him. Grateful for my family, my children, and the heaps upon heaps of blessings and undeserved graces in my life. Tears started to fill my eyes.


I lifted my eyes and kept walking, hoping I would not pass anyone. I was almost back at the house. I glanced east past the rooftops, out to the mountains. A magnificent blue sky, filled with long, thin sleeves of white clouds.


And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.


I arrived at the house and, holding the door handle, paused for a moment. “Thank you.” I whispered quietly, my head lowered. Then, I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and went inside.

David McHugh grew up in Germany and currently lives in northern California. He is married to Maya and enjoys spending time with their blended family. David works in banking and helps with RCIA in his local parish. He enjoys tennis, reading, and religious and creative writing. In 2020, he self-published a short suspense novel, Point of Convergence. He also writes a religious column for St. Peter’s Church that is published in the Dixon Tribune.