With her fists closed tightly, Chris Heeter let her hands drop lightly to her sides, opening her palms widely and wildly. And with that small, simple motion, Heeter was unknowingly opening not just her hands, but her heart to a presence that would change her life as well as thousands of others.
Heeter, founder of The Wild Institute, welcomed her dog and partner, Tuu Weh, into her life after years of exclusively raising huskies and sled dogs. But this time her search for the perfect pup was different; Heeter decided to forego her previous list of conditions and go with her gut. When she laid eyes on Tuu Weh, she immediately knew, "There she is."
About a year after Heeter became Tuu Weh's person, she realized that her peaceful, calming presence would make her the perfect "speaker dog" to join Heeter on stage.
Heeter speaks about how to be more wild, or in other words, "how to have the courage to bring the gift of all of who you are to all of what you do."
"I speak about not hanging up part of yourself on the hook when you enter the office, but instead being your full self and bringing your full potential everywhere you go," Heeter says. "We all start out wild, but as we grow up, we start adding layers of expectations and assumptions, so parts of us are no longer wild."
Heeter says she's implementing the term "rewilding" to describe how people can get back to their wild roots and be 100 percent, utterly and authentically themselves. Rewilding is a term used in conservation work to get run-down farms back to their origins of native plantings, similar to the way Heeter encourages people to return to themselves.
While Heeter's talks are powerful and effective on their own, Tuu Weh was what made them whole. "Any time you bring a dog into a space, everything shifts," Heeter says. "People are more open and compassionate, and the environment becomes interesting, safe and comfortable."
Tuu Weh's "freakishly mellow" presence effortlessly set the mood of every event they attended. Though she would stroll the aisles and say hello to everyone in the audience, Tuu Weh was perhaps most well known for her onstage napping. "At home, she would go on walks of 3-5 miles with me, but otherwise she would always choose to nap. She was a dream dog, I would say she had 'an active dream life,'" Heeter says.
Heeter says Tuu Weh was the perfect ambassador of her "live wild" message. "People often assume 'wild' means crazy, but she's the perfect example that wild is being exactly who you are. For Tuu Weh, being wild was being sound asleep and dreaming on stage," she says. "She represents that wild is unique to each of us. It isn't the loudest or the craziest person in the room but anyone who is 100 percent themselves."
Since Heeter has shared the news of Tuu Weh's passing, she has received nearly 300 emails, from heartfelt notes of sympathy to stories of people's own lost loved ones to messages asking for advice. "They were all so unique and heartfelt, so I'm responding to each one individually. It will take months, but I'm not surprised; that's just what Tuu Weh brought out in all of us," Heeter says.
Though there remains a Tuu Weh-sized hole in Heeter's presentations, audiences might have another companion to look forward to. Summit, Heeter's three-year-old rescue dog, is still too high-energy to follow Tuu Weh's legacy, though his abundant love for everyone he meets shows promise that someday he will be ready to take the stage, she says.
"The bond between humans and dogs is so deep," Heeter says. "Dogs have a capacity for empathy and compassion toward humans that is just unmatched."