Dan & Shadow - The Sky's the Limit
by Pam Bonsper
Photos by Jim Urquhart
Name me one dog that doesn't love hanging its head out a car or truck window, and I'll name you a fish that doesn't like to swim. Let's face it—dogs crave wind. The stronger the better.
Some people crave wind, also. Just like dogs, they can't wait to fill up their lungs with cold, fresh oxygen. Some of these people also crave flying. They get themselves harnessed up and attached to a glider and they jump off steep hillsides. They want to be birds.
Or maybe there is more to it. For Dan McManus, hang gliding is where his mind is the quietest. Suffering from an anxiety condition, Dan started hang-gliding thirty-four years ago, and has been flying ever since. He has a hang-gliding business at Point of the Mountain Flight Park in Utah. This beautiful area is dedicated by the state as a flight park—a place where flyers of all levels can jump in tandem with qualified instructors and soar through the sky.
But wait a minute--this is a magazine about dogs. What's the connection?
The story started almost eleven years ago, when Dan was given his psychiatric service dog, an Australian Cattle Dog named Shadow. Shadow was just a little tike back then, and like most puppies, he wanted to go everywhere his master went. Plus, it was his job to help Dan with his anxiety. So you can imagine Shadow's own separation anxiety when Dan ran down the field and jumped off into the wild blue yonder.
"He watched me for about two years," Dan explains. "He could tell my glider from other gliders and was right there when I landed. He started chasing me around the hill when I'd get ready to launch. Then he started jumping, and then holding onto my shoe. I realized--Oh, I get it--I'll get a harness and take him for a spin . . . maybe it will break his desire. But the opposite happened. He loved flying and has been paragliding with me for nine years."
Dan emphasizes the fact that Shadow wants to fly. At first, Shadow let him know by dragging his harness out of the truck. "But now he knows he's going to go. When I bring out his harness, he stands like a horse waiting to be saddled. He's excited. We take off, and he weight shifts when he needs to. He actually anticipates when he needs to shift his weight. It's amazing."
Dan describes the connection he feels with Shadow when they are gliding through the sky. "It's like having your best friend with you. He looks at me. I talk to him. He listens. He is my co-pilot. Sometimes he puts his arms around me."
Dan laughs and adds, "The people I take out are rather boring compared to Shadow. And they ask a million questions and scream. Shadow just enjoys the flight. He understands it's a sort of meditation—that's what it's all about."
I asked Dan if Shadow ever barks up there, like when a bird flies by.
"When there's an eagle or a hawk in the air, he stares at it. But he likes to look down at the ground more. He likes looking at the dogs more than the people. If there's a dog he wants to check out, he lets me know he wants to land by licking my face and whimpering. Then when we land, if the dog is no longer there or no longer interesting, he wants to hang glide again!"
"How long do you typically stay in the air?" I ask.
"Usually fifteen to twenty minutes. We land, then go up again. But we went to Mexico one time, launched and flew into the clouds, and were flying for three hours. We were at 14,000 feet. It was cold up there and Shadow loved it. That was our longest and highest flight. He's also flown in Costa Rica. He's definitely an international flier."
Dan also notes that hang gliding is a sport that requires many safety precautions. Shadow has to have a well-fitting, custom-made harness. In Dan's words, the rig "starts out simply a hi-tech duffle bag. Then it has webbing sewn all around, clicks and quick-links and a zipper. It may look just like a dog in a duffel bag, but it's highly modified and very safe."
Dan not only wants to share his experience with Shadow as his hang-gliding companion, but also his relationship with him as a psychiatric service dog.
"He has helped me in more ways than one," Dan says. "He has been well-trained, and he has a calming effect on me. I hope other people will look into psychiatric service dogs. It may be something they wouldn't know of."
Thanks, Dan and Shadow, for sharing your story and your passion. We will look for you in the sky. May the wind be always in your faces, and may the skies give you wind beneath your wings.