Friday, November 16, 2012

Walking In the Woods With Dogs

     Today I had the pleasure of tagging along with my husband, Michael, who runs our "Hike With Mike" program here at Dances With Dogs.  He was headed to Pratt's Brook Park on North Road in Yarmouth with ten dogs for a two-hour, off-leash romp through six miles of wooded trails on a gorgeous tract of preserved land.  Open to dogs and people year-round, this park tends to be fairly quiet on week days, offering the perfect opportunity for Mike's pack of canine hikers to enjoy the freedom of the woods and not encounter a ton of people.
     Our hiking program is in its second year of existence and represents the highest privilege earned by the small breed students of our school, who begin their social training in our puppy nursery school, graduate to our small breed adult dog day care program and then develop off-leash skills in the woods with a small pack guided by Mike and our two adult Labs, Casco and Tonya.  It's an amazing experience for the dogs as well as the pack leaders.
     Mike learned his pack leader skills by accompanying me on hikes for about a year and now he's out on his own, leading hikes three days per week for the school.  It's been wonderful for me to see how he's grown in his leadership skills and how responsive the dogs are to him.  I bubble with pride as I watch him at work, and am happy to capture the action and interaction with my camera when I accompany the crew on occasion.
     I am asked all the time, "how is it that you keep the dogs together if they are off leash in the woods?"  Great question and the answer lies in the relationships we've built with these dogs for months and sometimes years prior to trusting them without a leash in the woods.  We know each of our hikers personalities and quirks very well.  We've coached their owners on how to work with them outside of our program to build recall and listening skills and we're very careful about who gets to join the hiking program and when it would be appropriate to do so.  Our entire program is built around the "power of the pack" and this extends to our hiking classes as well.  What I mean by "power of the pack" is that dogs learn from each other, giving and receiving subtle and not-so-subtle cues which inform and drive behavior and choices in their social interactions.  In the woods, we are with a pack of dogs who love and enjoy each other -- i.e. they want to be with each other.  We also use our own two adult Labs as assistants with our packs of hiking dogs.  Casco and Tonya are very experienced in the woods and have great off-leash skills.  They help set the tone and their calm, confident energy keeps the younger, smaller dogs together.
     Mike and I are also working with our hikers continually on recall skills while we're in the woods, offering incentives and rewards for sticking together and for checking in with us every couple of minutes.  Our hikers are never out of our vision, and we use a squeaker (the kind used in squeaky toys for dogs) as our recall signal.  When our hikers hear the sound of the squeaker, they know a treat is coming, so they high-tail it over to us to get their reward.  Perfect!  Most are also under voice command and will come to us when they hear their name or the word "here" or "come."
     The squeaker is also extremely helpful when we run into other people with or without dogs on the trail.  Dogs alert to the sound of a collar jingling or voices coming toward us, and their natural tendency is to run towards it and/or bark.  We use the squeaker to call our pack over to us and we interrupt their attention from the scary/exciting thing coming toward us by tossing kibble onto the ground for them.  This shifts their brains into the "forage mode" and draws their attention away from the new people/dogs.
    Honestly, our most challenging moments on the trail have little to do with our own pack and everything to do with the people we run into.  We are like a circus sideshow, I guess.  People aren't used to seeing a pack of mostly small breed dogs romping in the woods together, so...they get excited and start yelling to us and to the dogs in loud, happy, excited voices.  This is exactly the OPPOSITE of what we'd most like them to do.  Dogs always take their cues from people....and if the people are waving their arms, hollering about how cute they are and making a loud fuss, the dogs tend to start jumping around, barking and lose their sense of calmness and control.  Sigh....  It happens all the time, unfortunately.  On those rare occasions when a person stays calm and silent, we can pass them in the woods without any fuss at all.  We just keep moving and the pack sees it as a non-event.  Perfect...but quite rare -- due to the people, not our dogs.
     On the best of days, we don't run into a single soul in the woods and we have two to three hours of uninterrupted freedom from all distractions for us and for our hiking dogs.  We live for and savor those days.  Our hiking adventures allow us to experience dogs at their very best and most happy.  Dogs are in their element in the woods....sniffing out the scents of wildlife, foraging for interesting tidbits, plunging into brooks and streams.  It is amazingly exhilarating and rewarding for us!  They chase each other over and under bushes and downed trees, flying through the leaves and snow with such grace and ease.
     Today was a great one for me, because I got to see my husband enjoying his work, demonstrating mastery of the fine art of pack leading and encouraging his buddies to run like the wind and live the best life possible for a few hours.  These are lucky, lucky dogs....and we are fortunate to be able to spend time leading them....and enjoying ourselves immensely in the process.  Nature is so wonderful for all of us.

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