In late May, while driving Shamus, the Newf, to Tails on Trails at Empire Plaza, we happened upon a tower of thick, black smoke billowing above the tree line. While at the stop sign, it was a mere curiosity … but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Not far ahead, a most ravenous fire devoured a building right before our eyes. I sat mesmerized for a moment. The hungry flames, having claimed every last board and shingle, licked at the sky in a frantic search for more fuel. A volunteer firefighter stood at the roadside, radio to mouth. Sirens blared their approach and broke through my daze.

My car rolled forward and out of the way as if under its own control, gaining speed as it went. The chaotic scene played slowly across the landscape of my brain as if mired in the ooze of lava-like roof tar, the stench of which scorched my nostrils. The palpable heat reached through my window like an open hand ready to take hold, or so I imagined.

The 20 second clip below is actual footage. As I drove past the far end of the site, I pointed the camcorder over my shoulder to confirm what I saw.

I pulled over and called my husband in a fit of tears. Nobody was hurt. The building was an empty bunk house and, thankfully, summer camp wasn’t in session. So why such anxiety over a fleeting moment?


Fueled by smoke, flames and a trip to Empire Plaza (where I eventually arrived on 9/11/2001), the firestorm in my mind was easily ignited. The fear I felt on September 11th, after witnessing the WTC attacks in person, burned through the boundaries of this brand new day and destroyed my capacity for logic and reason. Only later that evening did it  become fully clear. After all my PTSD therapy, some circuits still need rewiring.


This May day was difficult for Shamus too. Not only was I lacking the focus to guide him, he had his own issues to overcome.

The weekend prior, several events converged that sent Shamus running for cover, dragging me behind on the heals of my boots. It took some time to decipher Shamus’ triggers but, after studying various reactions, I was able to reimagine the initial scene through my dog’s eyes. It went something like this …

Visiting downtown Saratoga on sunny day, Maple leaves danced on strong winds and cast flickering shadows on the sidewalk below Shamus’ feet. Papery-white seed pods flew from decorative trees with each gust, fluttering and flashing all around us. They rained down from behind and lodged into Shamus’ fur. During what, in my mind, was a beautiful moment, the disorienting backfire of an unseen motorcycle tied these events together into a terrifying bundle for Shamus.


Since then, Shamus has undergone his own PTSD therapy, smothering sparks before they’re fanned into flames. We used that May class at Empire Plaza to sit with our fears, learning to recognize them in order to better understand them. I think we both made some progress that day.

Granted, when the wind first blew, Shamus still dragged me from under the Maple leaf shadows, but he watched and remained calm when he could see an oncoming motorcycle before it backfired. By the end of that day, we had spent quality time with our dog friends in the varied settings. We then rolled with them in the grass eating plenty of treats underneath the Maple trees in the gentlest of breezes.

The video below was taken on that day. You won’t see Shamus performing tasks like the other dogs, but he’s relaxing with the best of them in the end. We’ve done more work together since then, and he’ll be ready for anything when class starts up again. Until then, I leave you with this.