Based on the photos and stories I post, I suspect that many of my Facebook friends envision me enjoying the woods with my dogs rather like a spritely wood nymph, hopping from rock to rock, blissfully singing songs (Led Zeppelin or drinking songs…) as the dogs gambol about. Sorry to burst that bubble, but it ain’t quite like that. Lies by both omission and inclusion, I present a heavily edited version to the Facebook public, showing my friends the easy, happy-go-lucky side of wandering around in the woods with five dogs. I recently realized, after an epic crisis was averted, that it might not be a bad idea to flesh out the picture a little and to add a dollop of truth to the lies I haven’t exactly intended to tell.
Strolling with all five dogs off leash, we bumped into a porcupine. Ok, not literally, and not me – they bumped into a porky. Often up in the trees, this one was on the ground, in open woods, with no tree available for escape. The Peterbilt of porcupines, this was a massive moose of a prickler – from my vantage point I’d guess almost as big as my smallest dog. S/he gave the impression of vibrant health – gorgeous quills gleaming in the sun. Tons of them. Enough to cost me four figures at the vet per dog. And still have plenty left for the next passing fox or coyote.
Let me back up a moment – porcupines have very short legs. On the ground, they are not any taller than a fallen log, and their color (black/brown with white/cream) mimics sunlight dappled on the forest floor. Moving slowly or not at all, they are virtually invisible to me. But they smell amazing to my dogs. They are rodents, they move slowly, and they poop jellybean-sized and shaped deliciousness (just ask my dogs). All five of my dogs, off leash, moving in their pack-as-amoeba way, approached the porcupine. I couldn’t see the porky and I was at least 50 feet away. The dogs weren’t charging, but they weren’t hanging back either. Wagging and grinning, they were enthralled. But then I saw that Hawkitt’s hackles were up.
That was my sign, my tip-off that I needed to stop them from whatever they were doing. When I yelled my first leave it, I didn’t know what was there. All I knew was that I could not close the distance and grab five dogs if the situation required that level of response. So I yelled. I don’t even know what I yelled. I think I gave the three drop dead verbal messages – I shot them with all the fire power I had: “NO! LEAVE IT! COME!”
All five dogs turned away from the porky immediately, which the porky took as his/her cue to get outta Dodge. If you’ve never seen a porcupine run, believe me when I say, those short legs can move. This thing hauled ass, hitting 35 mph on its way to a tree a few dozen yards away. None of my gang followed. None even looked back: all trotted up to me. I think a few of them even sat in front of me – the correct completion of the come command. I was so flooded with adrenaline I don’t remember any of it clearly. But zero contact between wildlife and dogs, zero quills, and no harm done was the result.
Right about now you might be thinking “Big deal, she trains her dogs. All dog owners who take their dogs off leash in the woods should train their dogs.” I agree. Or perhaps your next thought was “that’s amazing. What a tremendous feat of training.” I don’t agree, but we’ll get to that. If you know much about high drive, pointy-eared dog breeds, like Belgian Malinois, German shepherd dogs, or Dutch Shepherds, then you might even be impressed with me, knowing that these dogs can have off-the-charts prey drive. Intense doesn’t even begin to describe them.
To a casual observer, in most situations, I look awfully lenient. The whistling shriek of a chipmunk’s air raid siren slices the air and the dogs just explode into movement, gone from my sight in an instant. This happens about 150 times in a half mile on our daily walks. I let them go. I know that most prudent dog owners would not do so. I weigh the risks versus the benefits: explosive acceleration, and that kind of pursuit is a soul-satisfying experience that I believe is deeply beneficial to dogs. Looking at my dogs – both 13 year olds in damn good physical condition, still well muscled, strong and fit, and my 6 year old looking like a prize fighter, I’d say this physical regime is healthy for them.
Not only in a physical sense, but in a primal, what-it-means-to-be-a-dog sense – to be able to fly through the woods at top speed, negotiating rock ledges, steep hillsides, fallen trees etc. seems to me, in my limited and anthropomorphized understanding of the canine spirit to be profoundly good for dogs. Ok, that’s an understatement: I think it is key to creating in my dogs a balanced and sane and satisfied animal. Yes, it is risky. I don’t do it with the dogs I foster. I don’t allow it with newcomers until they demonstrate reliable recall. And even with the gorgeous recall my dogs consistently show me, I know it is a risk, every day, every time they are out of my sight.
However, I wrote this post to stress two things: 1) I don’t train my dogs much at all and I am a lousy trainer. Any run of the mill dog trainer is better at training than me. I do very little formal training and what I do is usually wrong. I do teach my dogs what certain words and hand signals mean – the basics of our communication. Beyond that, I don’t really ever bother to teach them anything, although sometimes with corn chips and a lot of laughter, we do stupid pet-human tricks. I’ve been “high-fived” across the face more times that I care to admit. 2) I work harder than anyone I have ever met at doing something else with my dogs – something that I will call relationship building, but maybe there’s a fancier name already in use – and my ability, willingness, and commitment to doing that 24/7/365 is why my dogs obey me.
But let’s back up. I said that I knew when to act by noticing when Hawkitt’s hackles went up. Picture five dogs milling about, far away from me, on a hillside in the woods on a breezy day. In order for me to see that subtle change in him (his hackles didn’t go up much) I had to be watching closely. Think about the perspicacity that involved – that’s what walking the dogs is like for me, every day, every walk. Everywhere we go, I watch my dogs with that level of attention. I have honed hypervigilance to a razor sharpness. I scan the surroundings for anything amiss before I release my dogs – before we even walk out the front door. Sounds stressful? It is. This is the number one reason why I don’t bring my dogs out on casual weekend hikes on popular trails. Other people, other dogs, as well as bears-porcupines-trash-poop and it becomes just too much work. On weekends, we stay home.
My attention and awareness of potential problems is one-half of the equation. The other half – the way in which my dogs respond to me – is where the magic happens. They listen to me. They do my bidding. But why? We’ve established a common language, but the fact that they know what “come” means isn’t the reason they choose to turn away from the enticing thing and toward boring old me. Why hit the brakes mid-chase, for example, when I yell “no!”? The bunny smelled like dinner, and I don’t even have a morsel of freeze-dried lamb lung in my pocket. Why choose to obey, when instinct and genetics and lust direct them to do otherwise? I know lots of trainers would explain why giving all sorts of fancy reasons that have to do with operant conditioning or dominance and leadership, or goodness knows what else. I guess they are all correct; I’m sure I don’t know as much as they know about real training. Here’s what I believe: my dogs obey me because I trust them to. I trust them because they earn my trust and they trust me because I earn their trust. We work together to have fun and live in relative peace, security, and joy. Life with me is pretty good – there’s a lot of good canine mayhem to enjoy. And the price for enjoying that is adherence to the rules, of which there are few. Basically only 3: no, leave it, and come. The rest is just a paw in the face.