Late last year we got a dog. It’s the first time since I left my parents’ home that I’ve lived with one, and she’s become a source of amusement, wonder and some stress, especially at first. I will almost certainly be writing more about her, but the first area we had to deal with was The Walk, which came with a rather steep learning curve. I’ve always enjoyed long walks in woods and countryside, and assumed that having a dog would only increase that enjoyment, as well as providing more incentive to actually get out and do it. I love walking because you get to see so much, you notice details of unknown plants and trees, catch unexpected glimpses of wildlife, feel changes in air and weather and ground surface, colour and light and scent. You feel natural, connected, peaceful.
The experience, however, turns out to be rather different when you’re leashed to a galloping idiot, whose main interests appear to be producing poo, eating poo and rolling in poo. That’s when they’re not puddle-diving, mud-wading, hedge-scrambling, squirrel-worrying, leaf-digging, and attempting to eat anything that will fit in their mouth. And of course leaping all over any people we come across – preferably soon after the mud-wading or poo-rolling, of course.
Bless her hairy hide, we wouldn’t be without her, but mastering country walks has taken time and practice. Dog treats in one pocket and a tennis ball in the other have helped, as well as regular enough exercise that she now views the walk as a treat to be enjoyed sensibly, rather than the adventure of a lifetime.
We even let her off the lead occasionally. It’s taken a lot of time and intensive treat-training, but her recall is now about 99% if she’s on a long lead, and maybe 80-ish if she’s loose. Not ideal, so we can only risk it in areas we think are safe. She has her own set of priorities, though, which took us a while to understand. Most of the time, food trumps anything else, so a pocket full of tasty treats keeps her attention from wandering, but I’ve found recently that on a long walk, once she’s had quite a lot of treats, the attraction of galloping off into the distance starts to outweigh her hunger, so we’ve had a few scares, especially near farmland where she could really get into trouble.
The closest we came to losing her was nearer to home. I was exercising her in a football field nearby, at 4am when we get home from work, and decided to try letting her loose for once. She galloped about a bit, came back a few times for her treat, then trotted into a clump of bushes and trees, and didn’t come back out. I called and called, and pushed my way in, fearing her collar might have got snagged, but no sign of her. I walked round and round the field, calling till I was hoarse, and then started for home, hoping she might have headed that way if she left the field. Just then my phone rang, and a man said he’d found the dog. Where? Outside Wetherspoons! He had her safe in his taxi, and she was unharmed. But honestly, what kind of dog chooses to leave a field that they have the freedom to run around in to their heart’s content, and head right into the town centre to be picked up by a taxi outside the pub?
We now know that in the local area her main focus is on food litter and dropped takeaways, and she knows exactly where most of that stuff is, so we can’t risk her going off-lead for at least a mile around the centre of town. We were just lucky that time, because she crossed a major road and even at that time there is fairly regular traffic, mostly taxis and delivery lorries. So we’re still learning, but it’s a delicate dilemma, between giving her the freedom to run the way she needs to, and keeping her safe.