Dogs, Not Robots

Hours. I spent hours today, hours of my life that I will never get back, chasing an errant knave of a dog on Bramley Mountain. And it wasn’t exactly his fault, nor is he a bad dog, nor was he exhibiting bad behavior, and (hold onto your hats because this is the biggie) nor am I a bad owner.

Shit happens. Before this morning’s escapade, I was mulling over my next blog post, considering the notions we humans have of good dogs and bad dogs, good behavior and bad behavior. Wanted and unwanted actions and how we handle them – this is what I think about when I have down time. It’s also what I think about when I’m busy, or when I’m working on a pleasantly mindless or repetitive task… like weeding or planting seedlings, both of which I spend a lot of time doing these days.

Good behavior, level one, is easy to define. A dog that obeys a command demonstrates good behavior, right? That’s a no brainer: I say sit and the dog sits. If he sits quickly and without rolling his eyes at me, even better. I call him and he comes… good dog. But what about the actions that occur without our commands – the stuff they do when no one is watching, or when we’re watching but not intervening?

Examples? I love watching my dogs make decisions and choices, and I give them ample opportunities to do so. You’d think I have a laundry list at the ready of independent actions my gang does to illustrate this idea, but my mind has gone blank. Why? Probably because Hawkitt took off this morning and I spent hours reobtaining him. I’m working on my attitude as I write, trying to breathe and understand, to tease apart the threads of my responsibility and his nature, to understand what I can reasonably expect from him and from myself.

Crushingly handsome as Tom would say, but what a dickhead.

Hawkitt is a good dog by my definition. He is ridiculously obedient. He has a large vocabulary and completes an ever-increasing number of commands perfectly and consistently. He has a lovely temperament and is kind (anthropomorphic, I know, but if you’ve ever met a dog that wasn’t kind, you know what I mean). And I hesitate to describe what he did this morning as running away. Running away, to me, implies that he was guided by the intent to be away from me. Running away means just that in my book – running AWAY from home, pack and family.

Hawk was home the whole time he was away. He never came to a physical property boundary, or a road. He cannot distinguish the difference between the public land on one side of a stone wall and our private property on the other. He was running around in an area that we hike in together almost every day. It’s all home turf to him. When strangers hike on the public trail, Hawkitt needs to go confront them. To him, they are strangers in his home. That he confronts them with play and gentleness and joy is a blessing, and a huge relief, but the point remains. When strangers step onto that trail, to Hawk they are visiting his home. He needs to say hi.

The fact that he doesn’t say hi the vast majority of the time counts for something. When I see that look in his eye, the stiffness of his erect ears, or the hard stare in the general direction of the trail, I say “no, leave it” and he does. Reliably and consistently. But this morning he was chasing a chipmunk with Peeka and Cinder. I let them go. I never intervened, because I saw no reason to. I moved on with Brody, like I have done year in and year out. 99.999% of the time Hawkitt returns to me and remains with me for the rest of the walk. This time Hawk must have pulled his head out of a chipmunk hole and caught scent of people. He was gone before I could suggest he stay with me. And this happens about once a year.

I’m sure there are readers who feel concerned or critical of me and my handling of this situation. I readily admit, I have my moments where I feel rage and despair at the situation and wonder how much we could get for our unfinished house. I think about leashing Hawkitt for the rest of his natural life, or just not bringing him on the morning walk. Never hiking with him here at home, where I moved specifically because I could go hiking without getting in the car, feels extreme. And yet simply shrugging and saying well he’s a dog, not a robot, feels like a cop out.

Understanding this, at a deep level, is hard. It’s hard for me to be so inconvenienced and yet get it, deep down – that Hawk did nothing wrong. For the behaviorists in the crowd – let it be known that every time Hawkitt has visited hikers on that trail, it has resulted in high value rewards. The hikers play fetch with him endlessly, charmed by his adorable stick addiction. They set no limits, tell him he’s “so cute” and throw the stick every time he drops it. Why wouldn’t he go check the trail for playmates every chance he gets? How can I compete with that and still run a tight ship?

I saw an Instagram video this morning of a breeder training her dog. Her caption was about having a bad time of it with the dog totally misbehaving and failing to do what was asked. I commented “we all have off days and I always say they are dogs, not robots.” I believe that, but I hold other people’s dogs and training hiccups in a much more compassionate light than my own. Everyone is welcome to make mistakes and have their journey with their dogs (or humans, for that matter) be circuitous, bumpy, and zigzagging… except me. Except Hawkitt. Not my dogs, not my pack.

I was as polite and gentle as I could be when I collected him from those hikers on the summit. I snapped on the leash and barked commands at him and gave him zero slack, jerking his head up when he dove for the stick. Playtime is over, pal. He isn’t looking great this week – coat is a bit dusty and dull, and once again he looks too thin to me. I imagined the hikers feeling sorry for him, thinking “that poor underfed furbaby with the mean owner” and I felt awful. No wonder he ran away from me, right?

We heeled halfway home (that’s about half a mile, through untrailed wilderness), with him on target and in position. Since I snap a leash on him about once a year this is pretty damned impressive. We did some longer down stays and I rewarded him with a stick. He had to work for it, but work is his middle name. We were almost home when I saw a red eft inside a rotten log. It looked like something had kicked the log apart as it ran past – maybe a deer? Bear? Hawk got put in a sit stay while I examined and photographed thoroughly. I’ve never seen an eft inside a log before. The last time Hawk chaperoned hikers off Bramley was last summer. My buddy drove to the trail head while I ran up the mountain. On my way, bushwacking through the steeps, I stumbled upon a gorgeous chicken of the woods mushroom, which I harvested for dinner. While I was doing so, my phone went off: Kristie had picked up Hawkitt. I foraged a free dinner.

Striped marauder #2. Not a dickhead but a crackhead in her own right.

Do these serendipitous happenings somehow make it worth it? I know folks who would offer that Hawk is “giving” me these experiences and it is up to me to accept them as treasures and be grateful. I won’t go that far, and I will continue to strive to step up to the challenges of owning a dog like Hawkitt (not to put too fine a point on it, but have you noticed that NONE of my other dogs have ever done this? Past or present: zero. Not Lily, Iske, Mica, Tonshi, Brody, Peeka, or Cinder have ever decided to chaperone a hiker down to the parking area. Both Cinder and Peeka have confronted hikers, sized them up, and departed to return to me. But said hikers threw Hawkitt’s proffered stick. I think I’m gonna blame them and the stick throwing for my misfortune.)

They are dogs, not robots. They do the unexpected. They aren’t badly behaved, even when they do things we really really REALLY don’t want them to. And we aren’t bad owners for being in the soup with them, having it go badly one day and better the next. Life with dogs is just that: ups, downs and a whole lot of sidewayses. Life with the striped marauders of Bramley Mountain  – the Bramleywolves, if you will – is mostly sideways. It might not be instagrammable or elegant but it’s real. And when I look at them at the end of the day, I see dogs that have had their needs met. They are full and sated. Throwing a stick for miles on end doesn’t do that but being worked does. I might not be the nicest-sweetest-funnest furmama ever, but so be it. I am in it with them, working and playing, learning and growing. For me, that’s as good as it gets.

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1 Response to Dogs, Not Robots

  1. AnthonyP says:

    Great post, as I need to remember this about my dog.

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