Religion and politics on your short list of how to alienate friends and embarrass or enrage family? Bah. If you’d like to step into deep and swiftly running waters, try discussing on-leash versus off-leash with a diverse group of dog owners. Or, for the truly brave or foolish, dip your toes into the hotly contested waters of the relative merits of hiking with dogs (versus, or course, hiking dog-free).
In some places, dogs are just plain outlawed. Baxter State Park in Maine: no dogs. AMC hikes (I think – somebody correct me on this one): no dogs. I get it – some people really dislike mixing their wilderness experience with domesticated gallutes that tromp and trash the place, poop and pee everywhere, and may well scare away (or worse, attack) any wildlife within hundreds of yards of the trail.
I’m not exactly interested in arguing either side of either of these arguments. Leashed is best much of the time, depending upon where you live and what you’re doing (urban or suburban environments often have leash laws making the question, for the law-abiding among us, a no-brainer). Hiking with dogs can be amazingly satisfying and it can be dangerous to the dog and the surroundings. The specifics of the situation will sway me one way or the other on those debates.
But I am passionate about what I guess should be called my “style” of dog ownership, or to put it a little more succinctly, “pack leadership.” My dogs aren’t ornaments, and they aren’t exactly pets. I have trouble finding the words for just what they are – they are family but not “my canine children.” They are my pack and I am their alpha. Kind of cool, kind of weird to have a canine family, but that’s the best description I can come up with.
At the moment I am outnumbered and outweighed by my dogs so it is key that they are under control at all times – even hanging out at home. I could get hurt with 150+ lbs of dogflesh hurtling around. That said, I haven’t “trained” my dogs at all. I have never tried to teach them commands. I trained German Shepherds when I was a kid – it was my first job. I was a Carol Benjamin groupie; I loved her book Dog Training for Kids, and I loved her and gobbled up her wisdom.
But when I divorced Maya’s father in 2003, I rescued a Belgian Malinois: Iske. She had been tortured and abused, her ears wonky and her tongue partially cut off. She had PTSD, her nerves were shot, and she was only 2 and a half.
Iske taught me how to be an alpha and how to bond with a canine. She led me through the ropes of allowing a dog to mature, to fully embody its canine essence and become an adult dog, not a perpetual puppy for whom an owner makes all the decisions. Iske led me and I followed eagerly.
Once the bond was solid, I could trust her. But I solidified the bond by trusting her. She did things like running and jumping and chasing chipmunks or rabbits. She chewed bones lying on my daughter’s bed, leaving pale red greasy stains on the comforter. She stayed close, catching a man’s hand in her mouth to stop him from swinging a knife too near me, back in those early days.
I let her be. I let her run loose on the farm and in the woods. I ran with her, and when I couldn’t run, I invited her to run alongside my mountain bike. I let her use my car as her den, her safe place for thunderstorms or nights when my partner couldn’t handle her passionate presence. I let her make decisions and try things, and my only guiding limits were our bond. I let her become everything she could become: strong, athletic, feminine, intense, protective, intimidating, and ultimately, content.
She knows what I want from her and she chooses to comply, whether it is heeling at my side, stopping mid-acceleration to allow a rabbit to run away, or once (even I was impressed) releasing a muskrat she had caught — just peh! and out the muskrat dropped from between her jaws. Her willingness to do my bidding isn’t due to any training. We don’t do repetition around here – none of us go for that. She does as I ask because she accepts me as the alpha and I accept her as she is – a dog who runs, chases, jumps, chews, and yeah, sometimes when I’m not quick enough, kills. It’s what dogs do.