Hiking the Novice Dog: Part Three

Following on parts one and two.

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.

Lilo trusts R. more than she worries about the existence of water in the universe.

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.

Titus would like to point out that it’s almost his bedtime and we’re still out here on a mountaintop. How will I get his good-night stuffed marrow bone out of the freezer and put him to bed with it when we’re on this mountaintop?

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.

Majestic atop Mt Major after starting the day on Rowe.

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.

Starting to ask for bellyrubs when he needs a break, though!

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!)

Not-quite-sunset on Major that most recent time up.

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.

From afraid of rocks to posing atop ’em!

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!



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