or “Things Your Dog Trainer will Never Tell You.”
Five dogs off leash in the woods during hunting season: what could possibly go wrong? As I’ve shared in the past, all my dogs have impeccable recall. It’s the prerequisite to getting your Bramley Mountain off-leash license. All my dogs are obedient as the day is long… but it’s December 1st. Daylight is in its shortest supply this month and apparently so is my dogs’ enthusiasm for snappy responses to imperatives.
We started out this post-Thanksgiving weekend morning, with a bang. I decided that my menopausal Mombelly needs to go. From now on, I’m walking the dogs wearing my full search and rescue backpack. It’s over 20 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much, but try wearing a 22.79 lb pack on your back at 8 a.m. every morning whether you’re in the mood for it or not. There has been some back sliding in the weight maintenance program and a bit of extra delicious (extra quantity) beer and chocolate consumed. I’m rather soft and out of shape. This will not do, so on with the pack and off with the pack.
Of course this particular morning, Bindi decided to forget how to perform a recall command. She looked at me like I was speaking Japanese and continued to wander away, scarfing down deer poop as she ignored me. I all but popped a cork, turning every shade of crimson, scarlet, and vermillion, and became truly unpleasant to approach. As you might well imagine… Bindi continued to not approach me. Somehow I managed to get my attitude in check, shift gears, and become Nice Enough Mama, and we got a couple of decent recalls with waggy tails and slicked back ears… good enough to leave the property and enjoy our walk.
There is a catastrophic winter storm in the forecast: 12 – 16 inches of snow in the flatlands and 20+ inches for us mountain folks. The sky is solid gray. I don’t know if we’ll get what’s promised but if yesterday’s fish scale clouds are any indication at all, we stand a decent chance of it.
I saw boot prints on the woods road. They are not mine from yesterday. They are much larger, a man’s, and maybe from this morning as well. Dammit. My fear during hunting season is not that one of my dogs will get shot. They are all well covered in blaze orange and we make a racket (we meaning mostly me). My fear is that one of my less social pack members will surprise a hunter and the feeling will be mutual. I am not at all sure what would happen next. So we practice recall and I keep the dogs close, and I stay vigilant for any/all signs of human activity. If I can avoid a surprise encounter, that’s what I’ll do. I’d rather reroute than apologize and explain.
We do a 2.5 mile loop. I sweat and huff and puff on the uphills. Feels great, I tell myself. That’s my fat crying, or so my exercise app would say. I keep going, head on a swivel, watching and listening.
I’m slow up the last hill and reach the trail junction to see Hawk, Bindi, and Peeka race up a steep slope, heading towards a hollow tree at full tilt. Shit. I know that run. I read the intent in their body language even from this distance. This is not good.
Cinder and Brody stay put. I start scaling the hillside, hanging onto trees as I ascend. It’s bloody steep. I yell. None of the dogs obey. More cursing, more closing the distance, more worry. This is Not Good.
I get close enough to see and hear clearly. Bindi complies with the recall and rockets downhill to me. I hold her in one arm while she sings the song of her people — high pitched and repetitive howl-shrieks of frustration and blood lust. Hawk is now barking into a hole in the hollow tree, his barks muffled but loud enough to make my neck prickle. Peeka is biting the tree. I can hear hissing and growling. Whatever is in there is angry and large enough to garner significant interest from my dogs. Sufficiently significant that they are both drunk on adrenaline and utterly blowing me off. Each time I yell leave it, or come, they pull their heads out of the holes and take a step or two towards me. Then renewed hissing and growling sucks them back in.
This goes on for a very long few minutes.
My throat is getting sore from yelling and I’m totally affirming my own impotence. The dogs are NOT coming. I don’t feel safe approaching. I don’t know what is in that tree, but I do know that I lack any natural defenses against it. And if I go, Bindi goes. Bindi is small, sweet and probably easy to kill. She is a lover, not a fighter. We stay downhill and helpless, while I struggle with my shitty options.
I decide to leave them there and go home.
You read that correctly. Assessing the risks to both dogs and the wildlife (I have decided it’s most likely a fisher, but now that I rethink it, a bobcat is also possible), I have deep misgivings about leaving. It’s not a good option. But staying there being utterly ineffective is also not a good option.
I needed to get Brody, Cinder, and Bindi home. I needed to get my pack off and get leashes and Tom. I had no idea what I would find upon my return, but that was the best course of action as far as I could tell: leave and come back with Tom. Two pairs of hands are better than one. Given Hawkitt’s level of arousal I doubt I could manage him on a leash any way.
My own adrenaline was pegged in the red. That’s never a good place to be when dealing with dogs. I wasn’t angry at them for blowing me off, just …upset. Worried, sad, heartsick… the last thing I want is for any animal – pet or wildlife – to get injured. Avoiding all contact and injury to all living beings is my first priority… and it sure seemed like failure to do so was underway. I hate that feeling. I’m lucky (a little) and successful (a lot) and it happens infrequently. But it does happen.
Before I reached the house, Hawkitt and Peeka caught up with us. I checked them over for injuries: none. No blood, no holes, no rips or tears. No sign of another animal’s blood on their fur or lips. Bindi shrieked as she greeted Hawk, leaping on top of him and biting Peeka and generally making an overjoyed spectacle of herself. I hustled them all inside, took a long deep breath and examined them all more carefully. No signs of a scuffle at all.
I retooled: fresh batteries in the camera, dumped the backpack on the couch, and checked in with Tom. Then I headed back out, to make sure the fisher (or whatever) was in similarly good shape. I found the hollow tree, no problem. No fur, blood, or other signs of a struggle in the area — the tree was a great spot to wait out the dogs’ tantrum. Success: no injuries. While I’d prefer no harassment and no blowing off recall commands, the bigger, more important issue for me is that the dogs abandoned the wild animal hissing at them to rejoin me and the pack.
This is the heresy of dog training: that sometimes doing nothing and walking away is the most effective intervention you can employ. Most trainers will say I failed, that my dogs are not sufficiently trained, that the command should be obeyed 100% of the time, no matter what the distraction. I say sure. That’s awesome, and that will keep you in business. Because humans and dogs fail. We fail reliably and consistently. And as long as someone promises an end to those failures, folks will gobble that up and keep coming back, paying for more.
The truth is NOTHING will render any dog obedient 100% of the time. No dog is going to be spot on, every time, under every distraction, in all situations. None. If your trainer makes this claim, understand that they must: it’s their livelihood that requires it. But it’s not reality. Reality with dogs is much messier, much more nuanced, sophisticated, and complex. Dogs, not robots. Dogs can be completely amazing 99.99% of the time and still fuck up, blow you off, and demonstrate creative interpretations of your commands. Even military working dogs, law enforcement dogs, SAR dogs… they all are dogs first and they do screw up. They do make mistakes, fail to do their jobs completely or correctly, and get into shenanigans.
Overwhelmingly, well-trained working dogs screw up very rarely. Kind of like my dogs – they have opportunities to blow off their handler multiple times every day faced with a wide range of distractions, and they don’t. They demonstrate spot on obedience… right up until they don’t.
But what happened today with the fisher? What actually happened? I left. I walked away. Deep inside, I knew that was right. Sure I had misgivings, but I also had an inkling of hope and trust. Trust in what? The BOND. Why did Hawk and Peeka finally decide to leave the fisher alone? They chose to be with me. They chose to rejoin the pack, WITHOUT BEING TOLD TO. They did not need to be ordered; in fact, ordering them was utterly useless.
They made a decision that clearly showed the bond they have with me. They traded intoxicating arousal for me. They certainly were not going to trade thrilling wild animal contact for obeying a command. No thanks. But leaving them and walking away was more powerful than any command. Not because it was a calculated training technique, intended to “trick” them into shifting from prey drive to pack drive (although that might be one way to describe what happened), but because they have a deep, complex, and finely attenuated bond with me.
The bond cannot be taught. It’s not a technique or a set of training principles. It’s a relationship. And just like any other relationship, no matter how many therapists you see, or how many couples counseling sessions you endure, or how many online articles you read about how to make love last, the bottom line is that there is only one way to do so: you have to step up, be present, put in the work, and tolerate the hiccups. You can’t learn how to bond with a dog; you have to do it. You have to be vulnerable, confused, loving, stern, structured and chaotic and everything in between. But most of all you have to be present and open. You have to receive the Other, whether it’s your dog or your human partner. You have to love when you’re pissed off and disappointed and not getting what you want. You have to stick around when it sucks. And you have to keep trying.
Sure, after that you can learn techniques and practice drills. In fact, you have to. Remember where this all started (not the Mombelly but the Bindi recall reps). Yes, train, but don’t confuse training for some eventual guarantee of success. And more importantly, don’t believe that mistakes, blown off commands, or getting ignored once every year or two is somehow an indictment of your training or even your bond. It’s not. It’s life with dogs. That life is messy and imperfect. But it’s also real and profoundly beautiful.
It is a life that asks a lot.