I’m pretty good at training dogs to do things. Recalls. Heeling. Positions. All manner of targeting. So on, so forth. I mean, I’m just an interested amateur, right? But it’s fun. It has a lot of utility. It appeals to my vanity. I get the job done.
I’m a lot less good at training dogs to just hang out. That has a lot of utility, too! More than heeling, that’s for sure. I know in my brain that being able to chill is an important life skill for a dog to have.
And we do train it.
To the extent that makes everyday life liveable.
And then we kind of…stop.
Oh, Lilo’s mat has come along to backyard barbecues and horse shows (that I was not riding at; I have a strict one-animal-at-a-time rule at events involving horses). But I’m more of a go-do-stuff person than I am a just-hang-out person. That is, I just-hang-out a lot in my own space (or in my partner’s). I read books; I play video and board games; I watch the occasional movie or three episodes of a tv show that I swear I will finish and then never get around to. At home, my dogs have or develop pretty functional off-switches.
But away is another story. Away, I’ve been lazy about, because go-somewhere-and-just-hang-out is not my natural inclination and because it hasn’t been super-essential. Which is how I discovered this weekend that I have really good hiking dogs who need a little more work to be really good camp dogs.
You see, this weekend R. and the dogs and I headed to Vermont. Some friends were doing trail magic at a lovely shady riverside spot where the Appalachian and Long Trails cross route 103. Breakfast foods to start and then burgers and hot dogs on the grill and then a for-real clam boil. Chips and cookies and candy. Gatorade and beer. Our particular contribution consisted of fresh fruit and Oreos. It was a perfect way to spend a perfect afternoon; I can’t wait to do it again.
The dogs were mostly really good! They were reasonably social and overall attentive and Lilo in particular was content to chill at my side intermittently reinforced.
But she was more reactive to dogs passing through than I had expected. She’s gotten so good at meeting dogs on trail that it had — foolishly — not occurred to me that old habits might resurface in this different scenario, with new stressors in the form of new-to-her people coming and going and without the job of going down trail to focus her.
And Titus — was kind of a rockstar, actually. In between rolling in gross stuff (and promptly washed off, BUT STILL) and serenading the clam-boil crowd with his ear-piercing “YIPE YIPE!” when his quarter ran out. (I gave him a minute to see if he could settle himself down and then intervened, because I did not wish for him to be distressed or for myself to be murdered by folks trying to preserve their hearing.)
R. pointed out that I have higher standards for the dogs than anybody else does. And everybody was super-sweet about and complimentary of them (and I like nothing more than people complimenting my dogs!). And as above: they were mostly really good! I’m super proud of them for walking into a situation that’s so different than their everyday life and handling it, on the whole, really well. And now I have some motivation to, y’know, actually practice this set of skills that has suddenly become so much more relevant.
I like that about training. I like it a lot.
You ever look at a thing and desperately want to climb it?
Probably not with the dogs, though. And probably not anytime soon. It’s a bushwhack from the top of the slide and I’ve got some stuff to learn (and the right comrade(s) to gather) before trying.
But it’s on the list.
I’m skipping over a couple of really stellar hikes here to share one that was not actually one of my finest on-trail days — but that did include Titus’s first higher summit!
I’d been thinking I’d start him on one of the shorter, easier peaks, but I couldn’t quite settle on which. Not Tecumseh: he’s still young enough that I’d like to avoid endless stair-climbing. Not Tom or Field: I’ve had enough of the Willey range for now. I’ve almost pulled the trigger on Hale a couple of times, but there was something else (we’ll talk about it when I catch up on the reports I’m passing over) that I wanted to do first while in that neck of the woods.
Pierce or Jackson would have worked very well, but we’re into summer hiking season and those peaks are crowded right now, yo. Which is not a problem for the little guy. But I didn’t want to leave Lilo home for his very first 4ker — that would have felt too passing-the-torch and that’s not what we’re doing here! — and I do want my two-dog hiking skills more highly developed before I take them to a popular trail on a popular day at a popular time.
I also just kind of wanted something new. Lilo’s last higher summit was back on March 1st; mine was a week after that. I refuse to be ruled by the list, but I was itching to check another off. So I’d been looking at a couple of options but feeling ambivalent.
I mentioned my dilemma in passing (“Trying to decide if my young dog is ready for his first 4kers”) in a Facebook group. A friend weighed in with a suggestion: Moriah via the Stony Brook and Carter-Moriah trails. A bit more of an effort than I’d had in mind for his first big peak — 10.0 miles and 3,150′ of elevation gain — but not out of bounds given what we’d been doing (and how he’d been handling it). And the description was enticing: lots of water on the lower half, plenty of shade (the ridgewalk alternates between ledge and forest), and good views up top. After a bit more investigation, I was sold.
We got a later start than I’d wanted given the projected high temperatures. Lilo is more heat-sensitive than the average bear; I try to protect her pretty carefully. But I figured we’d get most of the climbing out of the way before the heat of the day set in and there was plenty of water for the hike down, so we set off.
The lower portion of the trail was exactly as advertised: pretty if unexciting forest, easy grades over good footing, and mostly paralleling a stream. We did get sucked onto a side path and wasted some time trying to figure it out before working our way back to the main trail. Eventually the climb steepened and the rocks began to show.
I was a bonehead and did not stop to filter water at the last stream; I figured we’d hit it on the way down. This was dumb. It was still pretty warm up top and the near-windless day meant minimal relief. So we moved very slowly along the ridge and I traumatized Lilo by splashing cold mud-water on her chest and belly and inside her hind legs when we found a puddle near the bog bridges.
The book describes a “fairly difficult scramble” where the summit spur trail turns of Carter-Moriah. Here it is! A fun little hand-and-foot climb. It’s a bit taller than it looks in the picture. Maybe 18-20′? This was actually taken on our descent. Both directions, I tethered one dog while helping the other and went back for the first. Lilo kept trying to walk up the sheer face instead of using the ledges, but we sorted it out. On the way down, I belayed her just a bit with her leash and vest: she made the decisions about where to go and I provided some resistance to keep her from pounding on herself as she did. Titus did very well with his balance; I just helped him route-find a bit.
From there it was a very short jaunt to the summit proper.
That pic looks in the least dramatic direction possible and taken while I was sitting down. The summit is a room-sized bare knob with near panoramic stand-up views, but we had company (and nowhere good to tether the lad). I opted to enjoy the rest with my dogs instead of scooting around the edges taking a million pictures — although I’m a little horrified to realize that apparently I took none! But a happy pup is my favorite view, anyway.
Because of my aforementioned boneheadedness, we did run out of water on the way back down. The dogs did well drinking out of mud puddles and I refilled their bottle from same to offer on the ledges. We went Lilo’s pace to be safe. She was very, very slow but never gave me reason for concern. I do love how well she takes care of herself.
I must admit that I was thinking so hard about the dogs that I didn’t do a great job of taking care of myself. I did take electrolytes steadily, which was good! But I’d had a pretty rotten week and not enough sleep the night before (even with our late start) and I felt pretty sorry for myself for most of the descent. Also did not manage Lilo very well during an encounter with another group of hikers-with-dog at a stream where we had settled for a rest. I had my water stuff laid out on a rock beside me and was in the middle of changing my boots and wasn’t thinking or moving quickly enough to get Lilo moved aside. No harm done, but not my finest moment.
I was thrilled with and proud of the dogs, though! Lilo handled her first big mountain hike of the season — it was still winter conditions when she did Cabot and the Belknap range — nicely. I thought she’d need today (Sunday) off, but she’s been happy and waggy and will go back out again (for something small) tonight. And Titus just plain rocked the hike. He was brain-tired in the last hour, but never dissolved into a tantrum and other than that could have easily been mistaken for a seasoned dog. I’m getting really excited about this little dog, you guys. All signs point to him being everything I’d hoped he’d be (and more!).
It’s just too bad that he’s so dignified and doesn’t know how to cut loose and relax.
This is actually the polite version. The pit bull just head-butts the door into submission.
It turns out that between seventeen and eighteen miles over two days is what it takes for me to make it downstairs in the morning before the Titus alarm goes off! Doesn’t leave much time for writing, though, so I’ll have to work on that throughout the week. Hope you all had a good weekend!
Last Saturday the dogs and I headed out to log some much-needed solo miles in Tunnel Brook Notch, the long valley between the peaks of Moosilauke and Clough. The trail — 4.4 miles from end to end, though the north trailhead is no longer directly accessible thanks to the ravages of Hurricane Irene — had come on my radar after I asked a friend who always seems to find the coolest spots if he’d mind sharing a few routes. We started from the south trailhead intending to hike the full length of the trail as an out-and-back.
An old logging road quickly narrows to singletrack along (crossing and recrossing) a pretty stream with many small cascades. The first mile passes a normally-scenic but currently under construction reservoir that serves the Glencliff Home. We opted not to linger over this view.
The trail does climb a wee bit but is never remotely steep or difficult in footing, though I can imagine the many water crossings might fall on the tedious-to-tricky spectrum in high water. I made out fine rock-hopping (with the occasional “paid for this Goretex, might as well use it” moment) and the dogs were unconcerned. Lilo’s wading at the swimming hole on that hot, hot weekend seems to have emboldened her! At two and a half miles, the woods begin to open up a bit and Mud Pond, with views to Moosilauke, becomes visible on the right.
Beaver-related flooding has taken over part of the trail near Mud Pond, but there’s a well-beaten bypass through the woods to the left. It returns to the original trail at the north end of the pond by a well-built fire ring. It seemed like a good spot for a break.
Not to mention for a long, long look back the way we’d come!
We eventually continued north, ducking back into the woods before popping out at another wide-open beaver swamp, this time looking north. There’s a nice fire ring in this area, too. I hope to return and make use of them some evening.
To our left was Clough, a trail-less (I believe) peak that’s one of the New Hampshire Hundred Highest. I’d read a few reports of bushwhacks from Tunnel Brook up the slides and/or to the summit and it was in the back of my mind if I saw an obvious herd path. But none presented itself (though I think I did find the drainage that one writer mentioned taking to a slide). Maybe next time.
Beyond the ponds, the trail moves through shifting forest. One section is mysteriously marked by cairns. I have no idea why; it’s well below treeline and the area isn’t even all that rocky by White Mountain standards. But it did feel a bit like running into old friends by surprise.
At last, the light through the trees ahead suggested an opening-up of the woods. We popped out onto Tunnel Brook Road. This was the original parking area for the north trailhead, but apparently the road was impressively washed-out by Irene a few years back. The cul-de-sac is being gradually overgrown. It made a nice spot to take our second long break of the day.
Once everyone was fed and rested, we headed south again.
Lilo sulked a bit when she realized it was an out-and-back. They do take after their people, huh? But the trail really does hike sweetly and we made good time back to the first campsite. I think we would all have been happy to linger there. Alas, we were on the clock and so had to savor as we went.
I’d had high hopes for the trail and it more than delivered: respectable mileage for a day hike without beating up on the hikers, plenty to look at along the way, and a scenic, unusual setting. The whole feel of the place was peaceful and welcoming. It has a lot of potential, too, between the campsites and the bushwhack to Clough and the possibility of a loop up Moosilauke. I have a long list of hikes that I’d like to do this summer, but I’m already looking forward to revisiting this one.
This last rule of mine is very simple and mostly exists because sometimes life just doesn’t go as planned (and that’s okay). Also, because sometimes you don’t know what’s possible until you try.
Never Make It Hard Twice In A Row
My favorite concept in jumping horses is the trust bank. I’ve encountered it many times in many forms, but Zen and the Art of Baby Horse Management explains it pretty well. Positive experiences — that is, successes and giving the horse a good ride — are like deposits in a bank account; they build trust and confidence and good will. Rider errors and bad moments and occasions of asking too much are withdrawals. (It works the other way around, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post!) The idea is that you don’t have to be perfect every time, but a good working relationship with a horse is built on a foundation of making more deposits to than withdrawals from the trust bank.
Same story, I think, when hiking with dogs.
Not every hike goes according to plan and not all hikers are necessarily planners. Sometimes you hit a new trail and realize partway through that it’s more technical and difficult than anticipated. Sometimes there’s an unexpected or earlier-than-forecasted shift in the weather. Sometimes you misread the map or miss a turn in a way than means extra miles in your hike. Sometimes you take a fall; sometimes your dog does. Sometimes somebody just, for whatever random reason, gets a little freaked out.
What counts as hard varies from dog to dog. It changes over time and with experience. Lilo now barely notices trail elements that would have stopped her in her tracks a year ago. She was, I kid you not, afraid of the dark — and now she night-hikes pretty comfortably. I wasn’t sure she’d ever do double-digit mileage, but she surprised me by rocking a long traverse of the Belknap range.
Titus’s big challenges are mental and mostly not directly hiking-related. He’s kind of that kid who gets all spun up about wanting everybody to like him; he thought and still thinks, though he’s made lots of progress, that genuinely relaxing is really hard and calmly communicating his needs is even harder. But of course that comes out on trail, too. His quarter lasts longer now, but he still loses the plot a bit when it runs out.
And we’re still only two months in; we’re learning about each other. Descending the last half-mile of Major in the dark was no big deal until the folks we’d chatted with on the summit appeared on the trail behind us — or more to the point, until their headlamps did. He’d had no problem at all with my lamp, but he thought theirs were utterly terrifying. (He did bounce back quite nicely once they got close enough for him to realize they were people!)
And sometimes it’s really scary. Lilo came unbalanced while scrambling near the summit of Chocorua. She was ultimately okay, but landed badly and hard and we had to go sit quietly on a ledge and shake for a little while.
The point is, it’s okay to make a mistake or to have a trip go awry. And it’s okay to ask, if you’re smart about it and willing to call it a day if it’s just not working out, for more than you’re absolutely positive is fair. Just like with human hikers, you don’t know what the dog can do until you try. The point is that just like with human hikers, if every outing is hard, it’ll stop being fun.
So you make deposits in the trust bank. You build some savings before you start to deliberately withdraw. And then you pay attention to how the hikes go and you don’t make it hard twice in a row. If you bump up the mileage, maybe drop it back down again the next time. If they’re a little uncertain on the scrambles, maybe give them a less technical hike before asking them to scramble again. Give them a chance to impress you and then give them a reason to trust that they won’t have to every time out. And give yourself a break if things get a little tough out there; it’s going to be okay.
And that’s all that I’ve got to say about that! I hope y’all found something useful in here; it felt like a nice easy post in my head when I promised to scribble it, but turned out to be much harder to write than I’d anticipated. I’ll take my own advice and return to something easier: a trip report. We had a really lovely hike on Saturday, so that’s up next!