Traveling through the forest with my dogs allows me to observe and learn so much more about the natural world than I could alone. In addition to my own senses, as rudimentary as they are, I benefit from the boys’ highly specialized senses of smell, sight and hearing.
They alert me to other creatures nearby, whether natural wildlife (squirrel, owl, deer) or people and the animals they bring with them (cattle, sheep, dogs, llamas). I’ve learned to read my dogs’ body language when they suddenly stop, listening intently or looking at something ahead yet unseen by me. Their posture and reactions – especially how Conall holds his tail – tells me whether it’s wildlife, livestock, or a person.
In the forest we haunt, beyond humans with rifles, my biggest worry in terms of safety for me and my dogs is unexpectedly coming upon a band of sheep being grazed on the national forest in the summer. In years past, the herder roaming across the forest with his band of sheep, moving camp each night, would shoot any dog that chased them. One had no way of knowing where the sheep were on any given day. More recently, after wolves moved back into this forest, reclaiming their natural habitat, herders started using guardian dogs trained to kill anything they perceive to be a threat to the sheep, whether wolf, coyote, dog, or human. Given Finn’s propensity to chase anything that runs, and Conall’s resemblance to a wolf, I do my utmost to remain far, far away from any band of sheep. (Both boys always wear bright Don’t Shoot Me vests whenever we’re in the forest.) Otherwise, the only wildlife I consider potentially dangerous to us are mama black bears and cougars. I don’t worry about coyotes, fox or wolves. Cattle grazing on the forest in the summers are annoying, but aren’t guarded by humans or dogs so pose no danger to me or the boys. In all the years I’ve played in this forest, I’ve never seen a cougar (although I once saw prints in mud). I’ve only seen wolves twice; one time, in 2006, a truly magical experience I’ll write about later. But I have seen lots of black bear.
Every Malamute I’ve had, even one I fostered, were bear-averse. Like me, they don’t want anything to do with the bears we occasionally encounter in the forests of Washington and Idaho. My second Malamute, Maia (1999-2013) was the one who taught me the body posture that went with Uh oh, bear ahead; turn back! Once, when I was still learning her signals, I tried to ignore her and continue up the trail, but she blocked me and was acting so nervous that I let her turn us back the way we came. A day later, another trail runner mentioned spooking a bear in that same area near the same time of day. I apologized to Maia and swore I’d never second-guess her again. Meadow (2001-2013) seemed to rely on Maia’s signals as much as I did; Maia was usually in the lead position with Meadow behind me when the three of us ventured onto forest trails.
My Aussie, Finn, joined us in 2008 as a six-month-old rescue. Turns out he isn’t afraid of bears. In fact, he enjoys chasing them, much to my consternation. I’d never had a herding breed dog before, so this was new to me. (Given the chance, Finn chases anything that runs, big or small. But if a deer stands stock still just feet off the trail, Finn goes right past it. Herding breeds rely more on their vision than smell or hearing.) A year after I lost Maia and Meadow (just six weeks apart – not a good summer), I fostered a wolf-hybrid through a northern-breed rescue I volunteer for. Because he was a foster – and because he looked so wolf-like – this dog was always on-leash when we walked in the forest. Finn, usually obedient with a solid recall, is usually off-leash. In the month this foster dog was with us, he twice alerted me to a nearby bear. The first time, walking along a dirt road in the forest, I wasn’t sure of his body language, especially since he didn’t hold his tail curled over his back like a Malamute. (When a Malamute drops its tail, it’s a sure sign of unease, worry or caution.) He suddenly started acting shy and nervous, stopping to listen and smell, trying to turn back for the car. I urged him to keep walking. Within a minute, Finn suddenly ran ahead hell-bent for leather. Stunned, I watched a full-grown bear dash across the road with Finn on its heels, quickly losing Finn as it crashed through the undergrowth down a steep hillside. No wonder the foster dog appeared nervous! The next time we walked that road and the foster dog’s tail quit swishing and he became nervous, scanning the trees, sniffing the air, I immediately turned us back, certain that the bear was still in the area. The foster dog’s body language was so similar to Maia’s, it was like having her presence with us again. I chose to believe this boy, as I’d promised Maia I’d always believe her.
When I got Conall as a puppy I certainly hoped he would continue the tradition of being my Malamute guide for forays into the forest, with the same innate awareness of wildlife around us. Early on he showed keen awareness of squirrels, deer, grouse; his senses worked well. (In fact, on his second day home with me, in mid-winter, he caught a vole in my yard. He was just eight weeks old!)
When Conall was just over a year old, though, I still wasn’t sure if he would be wary of bears. We had yet to see one. That June, Finn, Conall and I were heading up a mountain trail that had some patches of snow in sections. We came upon some distinct bear tracks in the snow. Much to my surprise, after intently sniffing the tracks, both boys started rolling in them! This was new – up to this point, I’d never seen Conall roll in anything, even snow, something Finn does every chance he gets. I’m still not sure why they both repeatedly rubbed their necks and shoulders in these prints except perhaps to better remember the bear scent by carrying it with them for a bit. I gave them as much time as they needed to get thoroughly covered. (I couldn’t smell anything bear-ish, either in the air or on their coats.) But I wondered if this fondness for bear scent meant that Conall would be a bear-chaser, like Finn, rather than bear-averse, like Maia.
I rarely know which sense first alerts Conall – and sometimes Finn – that something interesting and alive is nearby. Smell? Hearing? I do know that when the boys put their noses in deer or elk prints in the dirt or snow, they seem to know just how fresh those tracks. If really fresh, they get very excited and start rushing to follow the tracks off trail a bit, nose close to the ground, looking up periodically as if the animal had just strolled by and they’ll spot it through the trees. Sometimes – like Meadow used to do – Conall lifts his nose up high and inhales deeply several times, catching the scent of something wafting through the breeze.
By age two, Conall started assuming lead position whenever the boys and I went walking or running in the forest, giving me more opportunities to observe his body language and learn to read him.
Too many times to count Conall has suddenly stopped on a trail to peer up or down slope, through the trees, looking intently, tail dropped. This posture always catches my attention. I’ll move to his side to try to follow his gaze, see if I can spot what he’s focusing on. Sometimes I’ll see a deer move far off in the trees; sometimes it’s a squirrel climbing a tree. Often I never do see what caused Conall to stop. One time, though, the summer he was two, Conall’s gaze pointed me to a bear down a steep slope, snuffling through some boulders and foliage, moving slowly toward the trail we were on. I clapped my hands together loudly (startling Conall) and yelled Yo, bear! Move away, bear! to let it know we were nearby. It looked up at us, then continued doing it’s thing, unconcerned, meandering along the slope. I felt our best course of action was to continue running down the trail – downhill – putting lots of distance between us. (Finn never saw this bear and I wanted to keep it that way. Finn’s short, and the undergrowth obscured his line-of-sight.) As we ran, Conall stayed behind me, stopping frequently to check on the bear’s location, uneasy turning his back on it, making sure it wasn’t following us. A half mile down trail we crossed a creek and relaxed, continuing our run along an adjacent trail, Conall resuming to his usual lead position. Later, returning to the trail head, Conall and I were especially alert passing the area where the bear had been. Finn was oblivious. This, finally, was my proof that Conall had all the traits and instincts I could rely upon to keep us safe in the forest.
Conall hasn’t disappointed; he’s an alert, perceptive forest guide. Just like Maia, he displays happiness when hearing or seeing a human or dog up ahead (he especially loves mountain bikers), keen tenseness when he smells or sees deer or elk (Meadow used to literally vibrate with desire when she smelled an elk nearby), and nervousness when it’s a bear. By the time he was three I had his body language dialed. Having Conall lead the way allows me to relax, knowing that he’ll perceive what’s nearby long before me and alert me. I can decide, based on his body language, whether there’s a potential threat – a bear, possibly with cubs – and elect to turn back, or that it’s safe to proceed.
It’s one thing for me to observe tracks in the dirt or snow, regular reminders that the forest is alive, inhabited by many creatures, most harmless but some worth being wary of. My eyes can spot obviously visible wildlife, and I might hear branches cracking or foliage breaking as a deer or bear rushes away from us. But it’s Conall who allows me to feel safe in the forest, far from the trailhead, no one nearby. I rely on his keen senses and good instincts to alert me to all that’s around us, the benign and the potentially dangerous. And now that Finn is older – eleven this summer – I notice that he, too, watches and relies upon Conall’s body language, stopping whenever Conall does, extra alert and tense until Conall relaxes and resumes movement. I love Finn, as much as I love Conall, but I also rely on Conall. That’s a extra level of human-dog bond, a very special bond I’m grateful to have in my life.