There is nothing I love more than the sound of the wind whipping past my ears (even when it’s only 25 degrees F), snow landing on my eyelashes, the sound of hard snow crunching under my boots, the cold/hot feeling I get while hiking as snow lands on my cheeks, and listening to the huffing and snorting of my dogs as they race through the woods.
There is something special about a nearly silent hour long off leash hike through the woods. I know I’ve written about this before (pre-blog days), but it never fails to make me feel amazing, as a dog handler, to have these experiences. No constant jabbering, no shouting cues or directions, no constant recalling, and no controlling the dogs’ experience. Think about it, we as humans are frequently barking out orders and controlling most aspects of the dogs’ lives–when they eat, when they potty, where they go for a walk, what they get to do on the weekends, etc. It feels so great to allow them control and feels even better that I can trust them with that resource without any hesitation.
When we hike together, I really feel so much closer to them than during other walks. We are all walking together, giving directions, taking directions…. almost completely without words. I trust the dogs not to get too far….and if they do, for them to come back and check in and they trust me not to dash off randomly. It is such a relaxing feeling to just be with the dogs, alone, in the quiet woods surrounded by nothing but trees, and for them to explore unabated (and chew as Shayne loves to do). To be communicating so subtly and so effortlessly, it’s really so amazing.
It is like a great ballet… so much is communicated with movement that words are superfluous. I follow them until the path deviates from their course and as I follow the path, I am eventually followed by the thundering sound of two wild-dogs tearing through the woods after me…no need to recall them, no need to control what they do…. they can sniff or run or dig wherever they were and come back to me at their leisure.
In this human world, which places many restrictions on dogs (and their handlers), it’s a beautiful thing to be able to provide this level of freedom. It’s taken quite a lot of work, especially with Rio, to get to this point, but now that we have arrived, I couldn’t imagine having it any other way.
One of the things, I think, that has absolutely helped us on this journey is the relationship we’ve created by competing in k9 disc, training, and learning agility. My pups have learned to focus on me very closely–on or off leash, they’ve learned to work with me as a team, they are used to being off-leash while working, and I’d like to think they see me as valuable (ie. a giant pez dispenser). All of these things benefit me in having them off-leash while NOT working. The pups do not focus on me while we hike but they absolutely check in regularly… although not their focus, I’m not forgotten and am more than a “blip” on their radar.
One of the problems many people encounter with having dogs off-leash reliably is that, for the dog, being off-leash is a novelty. The only time they are allowed off-leash is in fenced areas where they can (and are encouraged to) run off and completely ignore their handler the whole time or they are simply never off-leash–so you can bet when they finally taste freedom they are going to take full advantage of it. People have to set their dogs up for success and part of that is teaching the dog how to simply be off-leash together.
It can take quite a bit of work (and not just recall work) to get there, but once you are there, it’s such an amazing place.