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Tips for Hiking with Your Dog

I’m way behind on this blog, but these tips were too great not to share. Thanks to Monique Balas at the Oregonian for this timely round-up of canine hiking tips





Danny’s Snack Pack

Danny is practicing hiking with a backpack since we’ll be doing lots of day hikes on our summer vacation. This morning, I put half a peanut butter sandwich in his pack for us to share during our snack break. This is a picture of Danny when he realized he was carrying a peanut butter sandwich in his own pack the whole time. It was kind of like Dorothy’s ruby slippers moment. The power of the peanut butter was with him all along.

Danny finally gets it. This is the dawn of dog realization.

Danny finally gets it. This is the dawn of dog realization.

Telegraph Leash

I’ve heard many times, and have seen it in action, that humans send signals to their dog via the leash. If we are nervous, angry, happy, whatever, our general state of being will travel down the leash to the dog. He’ll pick up on our every emotion, every tick, every change in our tone of voice.

So why, oh why, on this cold and miserably drizzly spring morning, did Danny not pick up on the one signal I was sending down the leash as clearly as an electric impulse on a telegraph line: poop already! We had to wander and pause while he searched and sniffed for the right place to do what he does every morning. Usually I’m very happy that Danny doesn’t like to poop in his back yard; I have nothing to clean up before mowing. But today? When fat drops of rain were running off the dogwood blossoms and spattering loudly on my hood? I could have used a quicker pooping protocol from my dog.

Danny, post-poop, pining for sunnier days.

Danny, post-poop, pining for sunnier days.

I Got Outsmarted by a Dog

I’d been working with Lovingham at the shelter for several weeks, and we had some routines, especially when it came time for me to leave his kennel and him to stay inside it. He strongly disagreed with that second part, and he’d become a practiced escape artist.

Lovingham on the hoof! But indoors. And supervised.

Lovingham on the hoof! But indoors. And supervised.

His favorite technique was to flatten his 75-pound body against the floor with his nose at the door. When you opened it even a tiny bit, he could wedge it farther open with his snout and barrel through you to escape. Then he’d cavort up and down the aisle, barking happily at every dog in every kennel, which made every other dog bark back. It was not awesome.

We volunteers and the staff in the behavior department had some tricks for dealing with that, including tossing a Kong to the far side of his kennel and dropping the door between kennel halves behind him, or using a trick with the clip leash to hold him inside while I escaped. The leash trick was an involved process not worth describing here since it really only applies to dogs in the kinds of kennels they have at the shelter, but it was my favorite process because it worked every time and it allowed me to help Lovingham learn to sit and wait patiently while I left.

The problem was, it was my favorite and it worked every time. One Sunday, Lovingham had been moved from his huge kennel to a smaller one to make room for a Great Dane mix. I was with him in his smaller kennel, and he was falling asleep on my lap. I knew better than to believe he wouldn’t try to escape, so I went for the tried and true leash trick to keep him tethered inside the kennel while I got out.

Here’s where I got outsmarted. Lovingham realized that in the smaller kennel, things were different. The door was closer to him, and he didn’t have to pull on the leash to get to it. The tension of pulling a bit against the leash was what kept him from escaping. I did not make that same connection; this trick had worked dozens of times, so it should work again. I didn’t even second guess its working. So when I opened the door, all lah-di-dah oblivious, my go-to trick didn’t work.

Lovingham back out of his leash backward and bounded out into the aisle, where people were browsing for fluffy little Lhasa apsos. Shit. Luckily, he was happily bouncing along and barking in a very not aggressive way. Also luckily, we had a thing and he liked me, and he liked my treats, and he was getting pretty good at coming when called. All told, he was free for less than 30 seconds, but my heart was pounding.

I leashed him up and got him into his kennel safely. Once my breathing returned to normal, I wondered what had gone wrong. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t taken into account that the situation was different, but Lovingham certainly had. That’s the trouble with active dogs — we poor, tired, routine-loving humans will do the same thing over and over, even when we’re in a different context. But if the context is different for a dog, everything is different. That’s why a dog that will sit on command inside doesn’t know the word outside. They’re terrible at transferring experience from one setting to another, but they’re great at recognizing when something has changed, even if we haven’t.

Since then, I’ve taken care to notice what’s the same and what’s different about me, the dog, and the space we’re in every time I start working with a dog. It’s a good practice to get into. Also since then, Lovingham has been adopted by a great family — and based on the pictures I’ve seen, he’s given up trying to escape. He knows a good then when he’s got it.


Rest Days, Georgia O’Keefe Style

[Georgia O’Keefe] tromped around wherever she pleased in flat, mannish shoes. The only time she changed her footwear into something more dainty and acceptable was when she wanted to resist the urge to hike for miles out into the prairie, or scramble up and down the rocks at nearby Palo Duro Canyon; high heels were for self-hobbling only. – Karen Karbo, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe. 

Many things in Karen Karbo’s book about Georgia O’Keeffe struck me, some as things to aspire to or admire, some things to use as dire warnings, and some things that O’Keeffe and I miraculously had in common. We are both Scorpios, and we both use high heels to keep ourselves home-bound.

Danny and I hike, run, and walk dozens of miles a week, and now that it’s spring, we’re also training for races (that Danny won’t even be running). All of this load on our muscles means we have to take rest days in order to recover and allow our muscles to repair themselves and get stronger. Fridays, according to my fastest 5k training plan, are rest days.

“Rest” is such a relative word, though. We still walk around the park in the morning, and I still walk dogs at the shelter on Fridays. And Danny and I will go for our regular afternoon walk, too. But the Danny walks are kept short, and I try to keep him from running with the neighbor dog too much.

To keep myself from wandering all over the neighborhood or walking too far too fast on rest days, I wear high heels. I even call it self-hobbling, like O’Keeffe. I don’t wear these shoes to walk Danny, but I wear them to my office. It keeps me at my desk, working, resting, waiting for the next morning’s run.

Self-hobbling isn't as uncute as it sounds.

Self-hobbling isn’t as uncute as it sounds.

Dog Brains and Candy Crush

I’ve heard a million times that dogs are gamblers. If they’ve been given enough rewards for particular behavior, they will keep trying that behavior, even if the rewards are inconsistent. We often teach dogs to sit by giving them a treat every time they get it right — for a while. Then we treat them half the time for a sit, then a quarter of the time, and then every once in a while. Sometimes they get one treat, and sometimes they get a jackpot of lots of treats. And sometimes they get jack shit. But they’ll gamble on sit, just in case a treat or ten might follow.

I understood this intellectually, but I found myself gambling, dog-style, while playing Candy Crush last night. Then I really got it.

When you get to the higher levels in Candy Crush, there are these colored eggs with question marks on them. Sometimes, they are good things, like striped candies that take out a whole row or wrapped candies that explode and take out a grid of other candies. But sometimes they are obstacles, like chocolate that takes over other candies or blocks that stand in the way of your Candy Crush greatness.

So even though sometimes I get no reward — and sometimes I get an obstacle — I still try to match those question mark candies first. I gamble that I’ll get something good, maybe a speckled candy that takes an entire color off the board. Maybe I get a small treat, maybe I get a jackpot, and maybe I get jack shit. Just like my dog, I’ll gamble on the good stuff.


Harness How-To: The Freedom Harness

Sometimes, you find yourself with a big dog with a big pulling problem. Sometimes that dog is named Lovingham, who was generous enough to model for this little guide. A front-clip harness isn’t enough, and a back-clip harness only spins the dog around. And maybe the dog is a pittie mix with a short little snout — to short for a gentle leader around her muzzle. But you need more control while the dog learns his loose-leash manners.

The Freedom harness can really help — if you use it right. It’s a tricky contraption and it only improves the dog’s on-leash behavior if you do it right. But if you do it right, you won’t feel like your arms have been pulled out of their shoulder sockets after a 15-minute walk with your dog.

This harness has a loop that goes over the dog’s head and a T-shaped strap that runs along his chest. The clips at the ends of the T go behind his front legs and attach to the loop. I’m not kidding — it’s quite the contraption.

You can see the clip and both D rings in this pic.

You can see the clip and both D rings in this pic.

But the payoff, once you teach your dog to sit still (mostly) while you get this thing on him, is two points of control. There’s a D ring in the center of his chest, like a front-clip harness, and a D ring between his shoulder blades. That second D ring is on a differently colored piece of webbing that serves two purposes: it tells you which way is up when you’re trying to get this thing on your wiggly dog, and more importantly, it cinches the harness a bit when the dog pulls. That helps get his attention.

Now, with two D rings, a normal leash won’t work. The Freedom harness uses a leash with two clips and a sliding handle in the middle. This adds another layer of control — the leash is basically folded in half, so the dog is close to you.

Okay, it’s on the dog finally. Now how do you use it?

It’s pretty much like a front-clip harness in that you want the dog to be on one side of you, with the leash coming across his chest and toward you, not around his neck and over his back. When the dog pulls, you use your loose leash training and stop, keeping the leash low and pulling the handle toward your hip or even across your body toward your opposite hip. That cinches up that back loop and pulls a bit on the front ring, so the dog will turn to notice you. “Oh hi!” you will say. “Remember me? I’m at the other end of this leash!” Then you’ll treat him for looking and letting the leash slacken a bit and you’ll both move forward until he pulls again. Rinse, repeat.

What you don’t want to do is yank the leash straight back when he pulls. The handle will slide toward you, which defeats the purpose of having better control of a strong, nutty dog. That dog will rear back like an unbroken horse and either be super pissed or think that is the greatest game in the world. You want neither of these outcomes. You want his happy attention on you and a loose leash.

I’ve had great success with this harness at the Oregon Humane Society, despite its complications. I’ve used it with lots of big breeds with strong pulling instincts and little previous training, especially dogs who were So! Very! Happy! to be outside. The straps that go under the dog’s armpits are velvety, which makes this a great choice for dogs with super-short hair and sensitive skin, like pit mixes who might get rubbed raw by a normal harness.

Good luck! Freedom harnesses aren’t cheap, but for an exuberant 75-pounder like Lovingham, it’s made a huge difference.