Belknap Traverse: An Easter Story

On Sunday morning, four humans and a dog set out from the Gunstock Mountain Resort to begin a traverse of the Belknap Range.

They made it about ten paces before someone wondered aloud if they had left the map on top of the car.

A moment (and a map reacquisition later), they continued on their way.

I love this about my hiking family: we show up for adventures and leave our egos more or less at home.

I love this about my hiking family, too: they take great care of my dog.

Our route was essentially that described in this Hike New England post, but we tacked Mt Rowe onto the front end of the hike. That’s relevant because, had I known, I would have opted out or left Lilo at home 10.4 miles and 3,000′ of elevation gain is a big hike for her. Cabot (as we did it) has a similar profile and she was cranky after that one (albeit happy on trail). I figured we’d linger there for a while before adding miles/gain. But there we were in the parking lot and the argument was compelling — adding Rowe means not weaving back and forth across the ski trails — and there are a couple of good bailout options along the way where Lilo and I could have headed down to a trailhead and waited for the others to finish and pick us up, so we went for it.

Reader, we did not use the bailouts.

We did wander through the ski area for a few minutes in search of the trailhead and then began to wander up. The first mile climbed steadily along a dirt-and-gravel road; we waxed poetic about the wonders of nature like that random ditch-digging heavy machinery off to the side. The forecast for the day was mid-50s and sunny, but the morning was all overcast mist. We passed a transformer station and then an EarthScope station atop our first peak of the day, Mt Rowe.

From there, the trail turned wilder. One of the crew had warned me that this portion of the hike was porcupine territory, so Lilo remained on-leash for the first several peaks. She has a good recall and usually checks in with me when she sees woodland critters, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way that porcupines were the exception to that rule!

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Making our way to Gunstock.

The Belknap trails — I’d been up our final peak, Major, but not any of the others — are super paw-friendly! We had some New Hampshire rock, of course, but other than that it’s all soft dirt and leaf litter (and mud). A very gentle surface for doggy feet.

Our second peak was Gunstock, home of the ski area that was kindly hosting our cars, and we exploded out of the woods into the open snow — almost directly into what we first thought was a ski patroller meeting (people in ski patrol garb on chairs listening to somebody reading a thing that we couldn’t hear next to a firepit) and then realized while amusing ourselves taking pictures by the summit sign was prooooobably a memorial service. Or an Easter service. We decided to go with an Easter service. I’m sure every Easter service features a bagpiper who plays “Amazing Grace” as the shame-faced hikers slink quietly back down into the woods.

(We felt pretty bad when we realized it wasn’t just ski patrollers hanging out and we did beat as hasty and respectful a retreat as we could. I like to think, though, that even if it was a memorial, anyone who would be memorialized on a mountaintop would appreciate a rowdy bunch of hikers crashing the service with their good time. Here’s to you, whoever you were!)

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We stopped a bit below the summit to listen to the piper and decide how mortified to be. This is Lilo waiting for us to get on with it.
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Onward! I’d been warned that the trail might be poorly marked in sections and we did run into a bit of trouble later on, but mostly the blazes were lovely and clear and the signs informative! I do recommend getting the color-coded map — that’s the one we almost left on the car — rather than the AMC version (which stayed in my pack).

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Summit #3 for the day: Mt Belknap!

Next up was Belknap, the tallest peak in the range. Three of our crew ran up the firetower. I started up, but Lilo was trying to follow and I was pretty sure she would not enjoy going back down the steep stairs, so I opted to get stay below with our fourth member. (Lilo historically won’t even attempt open staircases; I was impressed that she started right up.) We moved on again after a snack break. We were promised that it would be all downhill from here, but that turned out to be a vile lie.

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Cute, but also untrue; at this point the only view was of more fog.

In my head, the Belknaps are “little mountains” and compared to, say, the Presis that’s definitely true…but they’re tall enough to still feel wintry (while not being completely encased in unavoidable ice like some mountains I could name). The frost-touched trees in the mist as we descended from Belknap were eerily beautiful.

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Adjusting my “no non-blog people” rule to a “no faces” rule because I didn’t end up with many people-free dog pictures this time!

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This traverse is a constant stream of reinforcement; you’re rarely more than a mile away from your next peak! The stretch between Belknap and Klem was the longest of the day and we debated our route for a bit before settling on the shorter, steeper descent down Boulder trail. We were worried that it might still be icy, but I didn’t want to add any more miles onto Lilo’s legs if we could avoid it and the backtrack, if Boulder looked bad when we got there, was short. I’m so glad we went for it! It was the kind of trail I’ve been missing under the snow: a fun scrambly jaunt down broken rock.

This was the point where Lilo decided that maybe she’d rather hike with the longer-legged faster-moving members of our crew.

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Lilo killing it on Boulder trail.

The boulder-hopping led us straight down to beautiful Round Pond. I’m told the pond is full of beavers and leeches, but it sure is scenic.

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Evidence of beavers!
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Posing by the pond. She’s bulked up just a little in the last year and the chest strap of her Ruffwear pack no longer fits correctly — and I can’t let it out any more than I already have. Frustrating, since the belly straps are almost too long. But I guess we’re going to be in the market for another pack in the near future.

So there we were just past Round Pond. The sun was beginning to emerge and we’d spotted the day’s first patches of blue sky and I’d taken Lilo off-leash for the boulder field and thought to myself, I wonder if we’re past the porcupine danger zone? but all seemed peaceful…

…for another, I kid you not, minute and a half.

And then I heard my friends ten paces ahead calling Lilo’s name with Great Urgency.

Because there was a porcupine chilling in the middle of the trail not ten paces beyond them and completely not giving a fuck.

Lilo, bless her, was just standing there, just out of reach of anyone, gazing contemplatively off into the woods and no doubt wondering why all the humans lost their minds. And then she ambled over to me. I gave unto her all the cheese.

With dog safely leashed, we all marveled at the porcupine’s utter badassery. I’ve never seen a critter move back into the woods with such a total lack of concern. Very cool thing to witness in the wild, although I was much happier witnessing it with my dog safely on leash! (We did actually have a vet tech along for the day and I do carry a multitool with wire cutters that could presumably handle spines and Lilo is a pretty accommodating and stoic creature, but I was pretty happy not to have to test any of these resources.)

Crisis averted, we continued on our way.

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First glimpses of Winnepesaukee! Major, our final peak of the day, has a wonderful view of this wonderful lake. It still looked awfully far away at this point…
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Coat off, ear-warmer on!
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I think that’s the firetower on Belknap, speaking of looking far away.

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More rock-hopping, because New England.

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I want to say a few words here about how nice everybody was to Lilo all day long. She absorbed them right into her pack — she’d met one of the group before, but the other three were new — and hiked with everybody during the day, but often found herself way ahead of me on the scrambly bits. Four-paw drive, you guys: it is a thing. Everybody was super-encouraging, including looking out for her and occasionally giving her a boost. I try hard not to hike with people who don’t basically appreciate a good dog, but I also never expect anybody to take responsibility for her. It totally warmed my heart to see her treated like just another member of our crew, to be embraced and taken care of like anybody else.

And she did great! She got a little muscle-tired in the last third of the hike, but I could only see it when she started needing a little help in the scrambles. Although there was one point in the late going when she and I caught up to the rest — they were standing on a big rock, maybe 4′ high? — and someone asked, “How’s Lilo doing?” and before I could answer, she just walked up the face of the rock to join them — so it was really only a little help! And she started trudging a bit in the final ascent to Major, but only a bit; she’d drop in behind me and trudge and then she’d trot brightly up ahead again. I think the gentle footing and the ridge-walk — a little up, a little flat, a little down, repeat — really agreed with her.

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Ledges!

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Making everybody wait while I tear my pack apart and rebuild it…stronger.

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Closer to Winnepesauke as we approach Straightback…

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Sunbathing on Straightback. One peak to go!
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We really did have to do a little trail-finding around the quarries — but most of the way was as well-blazed as could be!

The Belknaps Range really is a special place. We were out on a good-weather day: near-freezing at the start, mid-50s at the finish, blue skies from mid-morning on. We saw only one of person, a cheerful speedy trail runner, in between Gunstock and the summit of Major. Or make that two you want to count the porcupine. I’m told this wasn’t entirely an artifact of hiking on Easter; apparently the in-between peaks are just not a well-traveled place.

The area has a lovely remote, wild feel to it even though you’re never more than a few miles from the road and the landscape is very different than the Whites. Every peak has a view near, if not at, the summit and we hiked along some lovely open ledges, but even on top there were wonderful gnarly old trees instead of krumholtz. Don’t get me wrong; I love me some krumholtz. But this was very different and very special and cool, and now practically in my backyard.

I hiked up Major for the Fourth of July this past summer to watch the fireworks over the lake (and for miles around) with some friends and have had a mental bookmark to get back and check out the rest of the range. I’m not sure why it took me this long, but Lilo and I will definitely be back before another eight months go by!

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Belknap bull atop Mt Major!

I did leave my leash on top of Major. So if anybody wants to suggest their favorite hiking leash — or dog pack, for that matter! — I’m all ears. Pack (or harness) needs be useful for lifting/supporting a dog in a scramble if needed; leash needs to clip over my shoulder or otherwise be easily-but-accessibly stashed when not in use.

 

 

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Last week was hard, you guys. There was no major crisis or disaster — but a steady stream of what was difficult and tiring and unresolved. When I got home from work on Friday, I popped the car into the garage, lay down on the kitchen rug, and just let Lilo lick my eyeballs for a couple of minutes there.

And then we went for a walk.

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Better now.

A thing that I’ve never had as an adult — a thing that I was very specifically and deliberately looking for as part of this last move — was what felt like a permanent home. The reasons are varied and not all that important, but it was important to me this time around to settle someplace that could be home for at least the next couple of years.

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Pit bull with upside-down sky.

And: success. Beyond my dearest hopes. I adore my little old house and my just-the-right length commute along the river, through trees upon trees, with mountains on the horizon; it makes me happy every day. I love my struggling hopeful tiny city. And I am so grateful¬† to have these trails walkable straight out of my door that are intimately part of the local landscape — for better and for worse — and that take me to places like this one, at moments like that one, and offer up some much-needed space and rest.

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Soundtrack to this spot; this was just behind and to the left from where I took the above pictures, and the falls drops ~25′.

And of course I also love having Lilo along on these walks. Part of me is so looking forward to the end of winter in the Whites so that we can get a little more solo hiking in. We’ve got wonderful trail buddies who I am so glad to know and to hike along with and who add so very much to our lives — but there’s also something really special about ambling down a (more or less) wild trail with somebody who just gets it, without having to talk. I’m too cautious and too aware of my relatively inexperience to do much serious winter hiking solo. My preferred solo-with-dog to lots-of-company ratio, though, is about 1:1, especially on those days at the end of those weeks when I’m just ready for a break from anybody who has thumbs.

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Ripples.

Dogs (and nature) are the best. That is all!

Loyalty

On a cold blustery day in January, Lilo and I went down to Dogtown for a last free-weekday hike. I lost my phone somewhere along the way and even though I backtracked the same mile of trail three times in the wind and fading light, I could not find it anywhere. I gave up and went home.

A few weeks later, I got a call from a Sprint store in Needham, MA, saying that someone had found my phone (at Dogtown outside of Gloucester) and turned it in — but that location was closing in 48 hours and had already shut down their shipping and could I come by and pick up my phone? Reader, it was midweek and I had just started my job; I could not.

But a friend of mine happened to pass through the area as part of her commute and kindly picked it up for me. Today (Tuesday) I turned it back on for the first time and imported to my computer the only reason that I had really been sorry to lose it and the only reason that I really wanted it back: this picture here.

Loyalty

“All Dogs Are Good For Hiking,” Or, Yes, But Also No

I had kind of an interesting experience recently after posting a query on a couple of my favorite hiking-dog Facebook groups. It was mostly my fault. The question that I asked (“What do you look for in a long-distance hiking dog?”) wasn’t quite the question that I wanted answered (“How would you evaluate an individual dog in a shelter environment for long-distance hiking interest and aptitude?”).

What I got was:

  1. A long list of everyone’s favorite breeds and types, most of which was interesting, because people talking about what they love is often interesting, and some of which gave me good stuff to chew on.
  2. Multiple cheerful suggestions to, “Adopt, not shop!” Which is a subject that I have many feelings about that would probably need their own blog post, and also a bit of a sore subject right now given that I’m trying but have apparently developed a get-dog-that-I’d-like-to-meet-adopted-by-somebody-else-twenty-minutes-before-I-arrive-at-the-shelter-where-he’s-been-sitting-with-zero-interested-visitors-for-the-last-month superpower. Which is delightful for the dogs, but sad for me!
  3. Several people saying that, “All dogs are good for hiking.”

Which: yes!

But also no.

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A desire to defy gravity is probably a good sign in a prospective hiking pal.

To be fair, I’ve said the exact same thing on others’ posts. Most dogs will enjoy most of the hikes that most people do, most of the time. Get the dog that you’ll be happy living with day in and day out; the within-normal-limits weekend jaunts will take care of themselves. And — again to be fair — this is very much on my mind as I search for something a little more intense than my darling Lilo. I’d love to find a critter that will be game for some high-mileage days and I’m comfortable with the idea of taking on Too Much Dog for an average pet-dog home, but it wouldn’t be fair to anyone in the house to take on Too Much Dog For Me. We’re going to spend a lot more time together off the trail than on it, you know?

And yet. And yet! If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from convincing Lilo to play the hiking game, it’s that not all dogs are good for hiking.

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Everything that I know about athletic animals and the importance of how a critter hits the ground, I learned from this guy.

It could have gone either way with Lilo. She’s by nature a worrier and a spook; just today she needed some pats and reassurance to go through a familiar tunnel on our rail trail. She will absolutely turn into a sad fragile delicate flower in the rain or wind. She’s also physically dense like a brick, with a massive front end. She struggles for balance in scrambly sections and can be hard on herself; while she has this lovely long powerful trot, when she jumps down off something, she does not land lightly. She dislikes hot weather, which might be more of a problem if I didn’t dislike it, too. (Instead we just both lose all will to live when the thermometer climbs above 80 deg F!)

She also loves going places and doing things with me. She’s attentive to the trail and to making sure that she keeps me in sight and is an easy dog to hike with in many ways. She’s methodical; she rarely goes down the trail with any speed, but she also just kinda doesn’t stop. That native caution and her thinky brain combine to mean that when she’s comfortable trying a section with tricky footing, she’s a bit of a genius at figuring it out and that is so cool to watch. And she takes good care of herself; I don’t have to worry about her the way that, for example, I worried about my Tucker horse (in the picture above) or my old dog Casey, neither of whom knew the meaning of quit.

But it could have gone either way. I didn’t hike with her for years because she seemed so overwhelmed by it. When we started back, we spent a lot of time staring at shadows and boulders (and as above, that worry is still a part of her to this day) and I’m honestly not sure we’d have made it this far if I hadn’t been able to hike her early mornings on uncrowded weekdays to keep the reactivity manageable. Lilo’s a great hiking dog now, but it took a lot of hard work from both of us to get her there and it would have been easy to scare her along the way — and that would have been the end of that.

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Even top-heavy monster trucks can scramble if they really try.

Which means that I’m in kind of a funny place. Lilo is in some ways the poster child for “all dogs are good at hiking”…and at the same time, the very fact of her success has made me that much more aware of what I’m asking when I say to a dog, “Do you wanna go for a hike?” I’m so glad and so grateful that she likes to hike with me; I don’t ever want to overdraw on her trust and I very much want, insofar as I’m able, to stack the odds in favor of the next pup also wanting to play this game.

So how would you evaluate an individual dog in a shelter environment for long-distance hiking interest and aptitude?

 

A Few Words on Mat Training

Liz asked for a tutorial on mat training on the scrambled eggs post and I figured I’d write up a thing. Then I realized that my advice splits into two branches:

  1. It’s the easiest thing in the world if you have a shaping-savvy dog.
  2. I don’t have a clue where to start if you don’t.

Pretty much all of Lilo’s intentional training has been clicker-based positive-reinforcement training. I’m only human, right? I’m not above an occasional collar pop or a human yowl of frustration and/or behavior-interrupting. I’m basically agnostic re: what people do with their own dogs; if human and pooch are happy, it’s all good in my book. But for this dog, this was and is the approach, and I’ve been really happy with it. I can talk a bit about the reasons why elsepost, if anyone’s interested. I’m only mentioning it here because it really informs the way I taught this behavior. So this post is going to be more of a ramble than a tutorial and I apologize in advance if it doesn’t generalize well.

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A young Lilo demonstrating the desired behavior, albeit with more skepticism than is perhaps strictly necessary.

So: go-to-mat. This was one of the first things Lilo learned in a really wonderful puppy obedience class and the behavior that, the instructor said, if universally taught, would keep more dogs out of the shelter than any other. I believe it. Being able to reliably send the dog to a fixed spot and get them out of the way and quiet/settled down is so useful. It’s functionally similar to crate-training, I s’pose, though more portable (and obviously less failsafe to start, although Lilo’s history with crates is a whole ‘nother story).

The finished behavior: a dog that, when asked (explicitly or through context cues, like scrambling eggs), seeks out a designated spot and lays down there and stays put until released. In theory, you can go as far as you want with teaching a “relax” or “settle.” Lilo’s squishing her face onto the floor was part of that process…although she’s a worrier and a really hard trier, and still tends to give me the some pretty intense “relaxation” if she thinks we might be doing something instead of just hanging out for a while. (Teaching her to roll over onto a hip (instead of forever holding her default sphinx down) was a step in the right direction.)

We started with a specific mat (the one pictured), but this behavior, once established, does seem to generalize well. I’ve borrowed towels at friends’ houses and used saddlepads at the barn, etc. Two reps is usually enough for her to figure out that, “Place!” now means, “Go to that thing instead.” And sometimes she generalizes it herself; she likes the location of the kitchen rugs and keeps trying to convince me that it’s her mat now.

The training process: start with a dog that understands the rudiments of free-shaping*. That is, one that groks 1) the marker you’re using (I like the precision of a clicker when shaping, though I’ll use a verbal marker with established behaviors) and 2) the idea that trying stuff out pays. Put the mat down in your training area. Wait. Mark/reward any interaction with the mat: feet on, sniffling, even looking at/acknowledging if you have a reticent dog: whatever. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

When the lightbulb goes on — that is, when the dog starts to figure out how to make you reward them — start raising criteria. Maybe look for two feet on the mat, and then three. Look for the dog to become magnetized to the mat — to clearly understand that moving onto it is the point of the exercise. With Lilo, I rewarded by tossing her treat a short distance from the mat at this stage, thus setting her up for another rep.

Once you have four feet, start looking for the down. You might hit some frustration at this point; typing it out, it feels like skipping a step, but I can’t figure out what the interim step would be. I’d probably accept a sit, but I wouldn’t want to linger there for too many reps and have the dog decide that the sit is important. (I’m not actually sure if Lilo had a sit when we started mat work. I know she had a nose-touch and that she did not have a cued down; I built that later out of a play bow.) If and when the dog happens on a down-on-mat — at this point or earlier — I’d jackpot the hell out of it (and then, if earlier, go back to lower-level rewards for feet on until the dog is magnetized). The criteria are chest and both elbows on the mat. I personally don’t care if the hind end hangs off, but chest-and-elbows cuts down on creeping.

I definitely didn’t name the behavior (that is, add the cue — simultaneous to the behavior, not before) until Lilo was consistently offering to run to her mat and throw herself down on it. I can’t remember how much distance we had before naming it, but I think probably 5-6′. This matters; you want the dog to be offering the behavior that you want before you tell them what it’s called. If you don’t want to keep, say, three-feet-on-standing-up, then don’t dwell there long enough to give it a name. I did name it before working towards the head-down hip-rolled position, but we dropped the verbal cue and went back to shaping when altering the criteria.

(I am super sloppy about my transitions between behaviors in a given training session. With Lilo, I get away with it. I suspect the next dog will tell me whether that’s because it’s actually not such a sin if the dog is used to how you work orrrr if Lilo is just a genius in that particular realm.)

And then you built distance — how far away you can start when sending the dog to the mat — and duration — how long they stay in position before you mark/reward — from there. When building duration, I switched over to rewarding her in place (handing her the treat while she stays down and/or placing it between her front paws). Ditto that while working on relaxation, actually, to keep everything lower-key.

It may go without saying, but just in case not: you do not have to do all of this in one sitting! You probably shouldn’t, even if you can. What works best for a given trainer and dog depends on them, but lots of bite-sized sessions are generally a great way to go. Lilo is a hard worker who loves training; she’s also a methodical thinky dog who benefits from — and will give herself as needed — breaks to let what she’s working on sink in a bit.

There will, again depending on you and your dog and the phase of the moon, etc., almost certainly be moments of frustration and just-not-getting-it. What that looks like will vary from dog to dog. I’m not (as this post probably makes clear!) an expert trainer; I’m just an interested amateur.

But as an interested amateur who spent a lot of time in dog classes? The biggest thing I saw people struggle with re: shaping was waiting out the moments when the dog didn’t seem to get it. And it’s very, very possible that my personal biggest strength as a trainer is my knack for standing there smiling at a dog who is trying everything except the thing I’m looking for. I find it charming and hilarious. I really, really recommend finding it charming and hilarious, you guys. Try not to get mad; try not to get frustrated; just give them space and time to work it out and if it just isn’t happening, back up to the previous step/criteria and shore that up before raising criteria again. Trust the process. Trust the dog.

Putting it to work: once you have the behavior reliably on cue, you can start putting it to work. Lilo went to her mat for pretty much everything in those early days: to wait for her meals, while the humans in the household were eating theirs, while I put on my shoes and gathered up gear for dog-walking, and so on. Definitely when we went over to other peoples’ houses, to the ice cream stand, and all sorts of out in public: the mat went, too, and sometimes the entire outing would revolve around having her chill on her mat with intermittent rewards.

(I’m quite sure that you could end up with an equivalent behavior by taking a dog with an established down-stay and consistently putting it in one on top of the mat in your desired context. This is basically how the Best Dog learned to lay under the kitchen table waiting for carrot scraps. So if you want to skip the whole shaping process, there you go. But I do feel like it’s easier with a dog that’s used to a system that rewards creativity.)

Dogs tend to like routines and shaping-savvy dogs tend to anticipate and offer what they think will pay well. Tell a dog to go to her place enough times before you put her dinner bowl down eventually results in a dog who runs for her place when you pick the bowl up in the first place. Or (as Lilo taught me a few weeks ago) when she thinks she might be able to sell you on the idea of picking it up. Tell a dog to go to her place enough times while you’re cooking your own dinner (and reward her with a couple of scraps as you do) eventually results in a dog who runs for her place when you break out the frying pan or chef’s knife.

Or when you pick up your shoes, or the doorbell rings, or the cat walks into the room, or whatever. Reinforced behavior continues, right? So you train the behavior. You put it into practice. And you reinforce, et voila. It’s very simple (which is not necessarily to say easy).

I have no idea if this post is going to make any sense at all outside of my head, especially since I’m obviously skipping the steps in between “acquire dog” and “decide to mat-train dog who has mysteriously become clicker-savvy.” This is one part because there are already plenty of words here and one part because I don’t clearly remember how we managed that; I think I know but I have a little reading up to do before next!dog enters my life! But there are lots of good books out there, for folks who are interested. I’m particularly fond of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, which are nice and clear and do a bomber job of explaining what thin-slicing and raising criteria are all about.

And that’s (more than) a few words about mat training! I hope y’all find this useful or at least interesting. Less jargon next time, I promise!

*One could certainly teach this via luring and/or capturing instead. I do use some capturing (mostly an unstructured “catch dog doing something right” kinda way) although I’m too impatient to rely on it exclusively. I’m not a huge fan of luring; I really like watching a critter figure things out for themselves; I just think shaping is way more fun and default to that instead. So I’m not actually sure what to recommend re: starting to lure a go-to-mat. But the Training Levels book definitely talks about it.

Tuckerman Ravine Revisited

Lilo and I hiked up to the Hermit Lake shelters on a warm day in January. Our trip pics kicked off a chorus of I-want-to-gos on Facebook and Krista of Paws of Peaks bravely attempted to marshal the troops for a group hike past the shelters to the floor of the ravine to watch the skiers. As happens, many folks were very excited initially and then mysteriously elsewhere when trip day came…but Krista, friend Linda, and I — and three dogs! — had ourselves a glorious hike on — and I know I keep saying this, but it’s because it keeps being true — a very fine winter day.

(It was probably just as well that we didn’t have a big crew, since eeryone in the world was at Pinkham Notch on Saturday. I ended up in overflow parking on the road because the lot was full!)

The Tuckerman Ravine trail is relatively gentle by White Mountain standards. It even has that greatest of local novelties: switchbacks! The grade is moderate but steady and I was kicking myself in pretty short order for having resisted the temptation of a short-sleeved base layer. It’s a hard trail to photograph, being heavily shaded, which does mean that the surface at this point remains mostly ice (both gritty granular stuff and boilerplate). All three pups handled it comfortably, as did the humans in microspikes and light-duty crampons, but barebooting is not yet advised.

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Tybee is a magical fairy of not putting up with your human nonsense.

We made good time up to the turnoffs for Harvard Cabin and Lion Head summer and winter routes (as of today, Lion Head winter is officially closed) and finally to Hermit Lake shelter, where quite a crew of skiers and snowboarders had gathered.

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Safety first!

After a quick breather and adjustment of layers — we were now at 3,900 feet, with 530 to go to reach the floor of the ravine — we pressed on. The trail was briefly deceptively flat passing Hermit Lake and then very decidedly not, steepening abruptly as the terrain dropped away to our left and the sun turned this exposed section’s footing to slippery slush. It was a pretty wonderful spot to take our time; I was especially captivated by the sun glistening on the snow off Boott Spur to our left and by the power of the Cutler River, obvious even from a distance.

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Eyes on the prize!
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Boott Spur.
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Look back to the Wilcat ski slopes.
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The ridge of which Lion Head is a part.
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Snow on the ground equals Tango in husky heaven.

And of course the great benefit of hiking with dog people is that they understand the need to stop and pose the pooches on every scenic rock along the way…

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She’ll strike a majestic pose with the other dogs, but not with me. I see how it is.

As KB noted on the Bondcliff post, this has been a really dry and mild winter and parts of the trails already look an awful lot like they will in the summer months. I enjoy the warm weather, but I was kind of hoping not to see the return of rock-hopping quite yet!

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Shortly before reaching the ravine, we passed the first aid cache that sits as a vivid reminder of the power of these beautiful places. As the Mt Washington Avalance Center notes, “Even the location of the first aid cache is exposed to avalanche hazards.” We were there on a low-probability day, but there were apparently two airlifts from the mountain for due to unspecific “life-threatening” injuries associated with “long sliding falls” (not avalanches) over the weekend. I’m fascinated by the balancing act of safety and adventure, as some of you know, and I’m so grateful to be able to play in these places that make both so very real.

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At last, we reached the floor of the ravine under a vibrant bluebird sky. The wind was stronger here, but intermittent, and we made ourselves a little camp not too far from Lunch Rocks and settled in to watch the skiers play. I like to think of myself as pretty game, but I cannot imagine being hardcore enough to climb up the headwall and ski back down again repeatedly!

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Train of skiers heading up…
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…this gully.
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I never figured out what this group was doing. There was supposedly an avalanche/mountaineering training class in the ravine at the time we were — maybe this was them?

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And of course snacked!

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So lucky to have a group of dogs who are happy to peacefully coexist around food. They know we always have plenty for everyone!

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Lilo wasn’t sure what to make of the skiers; she ignored them at a distance but couldn’t stop staring when they came close. Made it hard to take a nice staged pic of us both, so we improvised!

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Tango would have stayed up in the ravine all day, but the wind eventually started making the shorter-haired girls a little antsy, so we packed up and headed down again.

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We ran into many, many more skiers and boarders on their way up and at one point Lilo and I found ourselves camped out on a rock off to the side of the trail for a good 10min while we let first one dog, then a big group of people, then another dog, then another big group, all go by on an especially steep and narrow section. Everyone we met all day, with two legs and four, was in a great mood and happy to share the trail. Lilo met several dogs very nicely and let herself be fully distracted by cheese while several others passed. She also desperately wanted to play with a young Lab that I’m pretty sure she thought was her dear friend, Amanda‘s pup Arya…!

We finally had clear trail below and headed downhill at some speed hoping to catch the rest of our group — I ended up doing some inadvertent butt-sliding, which is one way to get down quick! — but it turned out that I needn’t have worried about holding them up. Lilo and I rejoined them at the Hermit Lake shelter where Tango and Ty were being photographed like rockstars with a bunch of adoring fans who were part of the AMC Youth Opportunities Program. The kids and their group leader were fantastic; it was a delightful addition to an already delightful day.

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Last look at Boott Spur shining in the sun.
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Back to the ravine past the Hermit Lake shelter deck.

The hike down was mostly uneventful except for one short side trek that I made to follow some postholing bootprints for a look at a gorgeous(but too shadowy for my phone camera to handle) narrow cascade. This also brought the biggest surprise of all: Lilo followed me!

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She’s a gem of a trail dog but has historically preferred to stand on terra firma and tell me I’m crazy when I move off into deeper snow. This time she left the crew, found herself chest-deep in snow, and just kept on going until she got to me. On the one hand, I’m not sure I should encourage her to go along will all my stupid ideas, but on the other, I was really touched!

The hike down was uneventful and I’ve intentionally left the next couple of weekends wide-open, so I’m not sure where we’ll end up next. I did see that the river trail in our local (heavily scare-quoted) “downtown” is finally free of ice, though — so that’ll be on the docket at some point soon!

If you haven’t had enough of Tuckerman yet, please go check out the Paws on Peaks post about this outing, which includes a charming picture of a certain pit bull using me as an armchair.

Wake-up Calls

I always kind of scratch my head when people talk about not wanting a dog because they like sleeping in.

I’m willing to believe there are early-rising dogs! (And yeah, house-breaking a tiny puppy involves a certain amount of wee hours. So to speak.) But my dogs have never been the sort. The old man understood the snooze alarm; he’d crawl under the covers for those extra seven minutes of snuggling.

And Lilo?

Left to her own devices, Lilo would fall into bed around sunset and not get up until noon the next day. I know this because I’ve watched her do it for days on end. She never, ever thinks it gets old. She does get a little bit nutty if she’s shorted on exercise during those daylight hours, as during the disaster that was New England’s winter last year. But we’re not even talking “dog adjusts to lazy human’s schedule” here. She needs her beauty sleep. It is entirely possible that the hardest part of my going back to work for her was the part where she has to sleepwalk outside at some point before 7am.

She’s starting to settle into the routine. She usually appears downstairs while I’m in the shower. I know this because her breakfast disappears (and then she goes back up to bed). There are only two things that make her spring up joyously in the morning.

The first is me asking, “You wanna go for a hike?”

The second is apparently the sound of the frying pan.

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Ever feel like you’re being watched?

Most mornings I make a scrambled-egg sandwich. And in my house, dogs that attend politely to the chef get scraps. This grand old tradition dates back to my childhood Lab (aka, the Best Dog) who would recall to the sound of vegetables being chopped.

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Good dogs beg on their mats with their faces on the floor.

I’m not even sure how she hears the pan over her snoring but every time I break it out, Lilo trots right into the kitchen before the butter even melts. She gets her scraps, she goes outside, and off I go to work. Never fails to make me smile and that’s a good way to start the day.

The only trouble is, some days I have peanut butter toast instead and the jar doesn’t make the same sound.