Today is the National Park Service’s 100th Birthday, so I’d like to talk about the importance of wild spaces—not just for us, but for our dogs, too. Here at The Polite Canine we put a lot of focus on bringing rules & structure into a dog’s life and proper house manners for our pets. But dogs need outlets for drives & energy, dogs have needs and instincts that are uniquely dog (run, dig, chew, hunt). We’re not here to turn dogs into people or robots or anything they are not. We’re here to bring balance. If you want a nice, polite pooch, you can’t ignore their wild side.
Every few months, I take my dogs up to Flagstaff to visit my brother. Flagstaff has acres and acres of national forest to explore, which means loads of leash-free land. My brother’s dog (a former death row doggie at the shelter, known for being a bit of a brute) lives 95% of her life totally leash free. She goes to work at the brewery every day, she has a fenced yard to romp in at home, and on days off, she can hike in the forests. When I asked my brother what if she ever ran away, he said “why would she?” She never leaves his side, she doesn’t roam, she meets dozens of new people and new dogs every week, and at the end of the brewery shifts she goes home tired and sleeps well. She has freedom, she has purpose, she has routine.
When we go hiking, we walk for hours without encountering another person. And when we do, our dogs have solid recalls—we pull them over to the side of the trail so others can pass. If they see a squirrel or a bird or a deer, we can call them off of it. That’s part of the deal, with great freedom comes great responsibility.
I see a noticeable difference in my dogs when they’re off leash on hikes. They are loose and confident, they move as a pack (all the dogs and humans together). Whatever tensions there were from the previous day of travel and trying to integrate with my brother’s dogs, ease away. They are blissful, all of them. My heeler is built to travel miles a day, droving herds of cattle. He is fleet and active, alert. And the first time I ever took my shepherd mix out on the trails I saw just how much of a shepherd he was—checking in, and keeping track who is with the group, who has wandered away. He is steady and reliable, a pack mule.
If I could, I would take all of my dogs to the wilderness every week. It unwinds them and centers them in a way that leashed walks in the city cannot. It makes the control I can have in obedience, in everyday home-life, in the relationships between the pack, all smoother.
Not every dog would do great in the woods, I realize. I’m not saying the cure to all behavioral issues is a wild run through the forest. Of course not. My point is simply to be aware of your dog’s natural drives. Harness these drives in your training. Provide outlets, provide structure, provide purpose. If you can channel their instincts, they may surprise you. Training is not about boxing your dog in, squashing his dog-ness, proper training should be a means to freedom, choice, and balance.