The highlight of my day is the walk I take in the woods with my dogs and any boarders staying with me. The route takes us past three houses, one where the owner routinely comes out with treats for the dogs. Yesterday it was left over sausages. Beyond these houses are hundreds of acres of New England woods with old carriage, and logging roads that have been whittled down to trails by the encroaching forest. Remnants of stone walls provide chipmunks and squirrels the opportunity to play hide & seek with the dogs and the old apple orchard has been tracked and marked by all varieties of wildlife; coyotes, deer, raccoons, fisher cats and beer. The place is a veritable scent smorgasbord.
The loop we walk includes two shallow stream crossings. I manage to keep my feet dry by taking advantage of a couple of stepping stones, the dogs either leap or wade. This time of year a sheet of ice covers the streams and is in many places thick enough to support both the weight of dogs and humans. I have had dogs that when we’ve come to the streams have been reluctant to cross (the most surprising being a labrador retriever). Some find an alternate route, a log spanning the stream perhaps. Others have worked up the courage to join me and the other dogs on the opposite side. On the rare occasion a dog will be so frightened by the prospect of crossing the stream that they’ll turn tail and head back the way we’ve just come.
Today my guest, BooBoo, a sweet, timid lab/bassett mix, was afraid to step onto the ice to cross the streams. Not only is the ice slippery, it cracks and squeaks, and although if it was to break would only land the dog in ankle deep water, it’s a scary prospect to an inexperienced or anxious dog. With some cajoling BooBoo made it across the first stream, following me as I shuffled across. The second crossing was not as easy for her. The small stream we were crossing had frozen over unevenly and fed into a larger stream which rumbled and rushed under the ice with frozen, sparkling shelves surrounding open areas where the current could be seen.
When I’ve had small dogs that were comfortable being picked up, I gave them a lift the two or three steps it takes me to get across, depositing them down on the opposite bank. BooBoo was too big for picking up and she’s a timid dog, so I avoid doing any handling of her that might be scary. My first tactic was to just keep walking, with the hope that her desire to be with us would outweigh her fear of crossing the ice. I got just out of sight so that she couldn’t see me but I had a view of the trail in case she decided to high tail it back the way we came. Since we were near the end of our loop I was not interested in having to retrace our route to get her back home. BooBoo didn’t turn around but instead I could hear her whining, and I did not want her anxiety to grow so I returned to see if I could encourage her to cross.
I weighed my options. I didn’t want her becoming more and more agitated so debated as to whether I should put a leash on her and force her to cross (keep in mind we’re talking about all of a four foot span). Since I don’t have a long time relationship with BooBoo I worried that approaching her might cause her to startle and move away from me. The last thing I wanted to do was put a leash on her and drag her, but how long was I going to wait for courage that might never materialize? I had only a few treats left in my pocket but I crunched them up and began tossing them to BooBoo who despite being too short for a lab has a lab’s interest in food. She was perched on a slope leading down to the stream so had to follow the treats as they rolled down toward the ice. I placed more treats where she had to take steps to get them and took the opportunity while she was distracted to take a hold of her collar. I snapped a leash on her but noticed that her collar was so loose that if I were to try pulling her she’d likely just slip out of it, along with losing any trust she was developing in me.
Fortunately I didn’t have to make the difficult choice of forcing her or not, once I was beside her and gave her a few words of encouragement she raced across the ice and we celebrated on the other side with treats and a quick game of stick wars with the other dogs. As expeditious as force may seem at times, if learning and confidence is what you’re after there’s nothing like experiential education. Think about learning to play the piano. Someone could push down on your fingers to get you to play the correct notes, but how effective is this likely to be when they take their fingers and the force away? Any physical behavior requires learning and practice to perfect. Each step a dog makes on its own is a step learned and accessible to them the next time they need it.
Had I forced BooBoo to cross the stream today she may well have become more comfortable crossing it again in the future, but the excitement we both felt when she managed it on her own would have been lost. I won’t go so far as to say that dogs feel proud of themselves but I know I sure felt proud of her.
Here is an excerpt from John Muir’s story of Stickeen, a must read for dog lovers everywhere-
“Nothing in after years has dimmed that Alaska storm-day. As I write it all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were again in the heart of it. Again I see the gray flying clouds with their rain-floods and snow, the ice-cliffs towering above the shrinking forest, the majestic ice-cascade, the vast glacier outspread before its white mountain fountains, and in the heart of it the tremendous crevasse,—emblem of the valley of the shadow of death,—low clouds trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I see little Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts of joy. I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”