the amazing power of “behind”

showing off those brown eyes

Before Bubba came into our lives, I had an image in my mind of wandering through the woods on our many hikes with our dog trotting along with us, enjoying exploring together, and long relaxing days spent on the trail. Well, like many things, in this case the reality of dog ownership has been different than my vision. In reality, Bubba gets over excited and pulls relentlessly on his leash, and if unleashed he takes off far out of sight and earshot. It’s stressful and frustrating. I’ve been very discouraged during our hikes by how much I have to focus on not allowing Bubba to pull me down the trail. It’s heartbreaking that these things that I love so much on their own, the dog and being in the woods and mountains, have been essentially unenjoyable together. This is a big part of why we got a dog- to be able to share all our outdoor adventures with!

On Saturday morning we set out for a hike at an Audobon sanctuary about 30 miles away from home. He has gotten somwehat better at heeling when we walk in the woods that he’s familiar with near our house, but from the moment we got out of the car Bubba was jumpy and pulling- drawn by the sights and smells of an unfamiliar place. I refuse to allow him to drag me down the trail. I think every time I let him get away with that, it just reinforces the behavior. So we stoped, a lot. I tried rapid-fire “no, heel” and “get back” and “right here” but all that resulted in was agitation on my part and impatience from Bubba. After a while made a slip collar out of the hand-loop of his leash. Normally this eliminates pulling because it keeps his nose off the ground, but in this case he kept at it, now choking himself as well. I got mad and growly myself, becoming angry with the dog and not very good company to Natasha on our hike. By about a mile in I was so frustrated that I yanked Bubba back by the leash really hard, making him stumble and yelp and leaving me feeling like a total shithead for my behavior. I am the more intelligent, thinking animal in this equation. I should be able to navigate the situation calmly and be a gentle leader.

So we took off for a few minutes. Bubba and I picked up the pace and hiked fast up the trail. My face was burning with frustration with the dog, but mostly with myself. I love this dog, and I like to think I understand him pretty well. It’s normal for him to be excited and to want to follow his nose at his own pace. But if we’re going to co-exist in the woods together we needed to figure out a way to make this work. For whatever reasons, “heel” doesn’t hold the same power in the woods as it does on the sidewalk. Something else had to work.

We came to a place where the trail narrowed and I decided to try something we’ve worked on a little bit at home. I’d read somewhere that if you want your dog to be able to cross-country ski with you, you need to teach him to follow behind you rather than in front or beside. So a couple months back, we started practicing this by jumping up on top of a low stone wall that runs through the woods near our house and giving him the command “behind” while he follows behind me. There would be no way for him to pass me without jumping down off the wall, which is only about two feet high but enough to create a mental barrier for this purpose. I can block him with my legs if he tries to sneak around me. So we gave it a try there in the narrow path and it worked like a charm. Just by holding the leash at my back rather than on my left side, he fell into place at my heels. If he tried to get ahead of me on the right, my hand was right there at his face patting him back. If he made a move to the left I could easily side-step to keep him behind me. Usually just a soft-spoken “get back” or “behind me” was enough of a correction. Even when the trail widened and he could more easily have gotten around me, for the most part he stayed back.

It was a brand new experience for me to be relaxed and enjoying a hike with Bubba in a new place. I was able to carry on a conversation with Natasha without having to stop every 20 feet to correct the dog. I could look around and focus on things other than Bubba’s behavior. My arm didn’t hurt from being pulled and pulling back in response. And most importantly to me, I wasn’t angry at the dog for just being a dog. It even seemed like Bubba was able to relax more in his new position. I could hold the leash more loosely and let out more length than usual. He was just more able to abide by these boundaries than when he’s asked to heel beside me without pulling.

In retrospect (like many things I’ve learned through this experience with Bubba) this seems so simple and obvious. But it is truly a culmination of many things coming together… of trial and error with different methods, building on past lessons, patience and persistance and familiarity that Bubba and I have developed over six months of working together. It was a breakthrough. I am encouraged every time something like this happens, and we’ve been seeing more and more small breakthroughs all the time. With every discovery Bubba becomes more trustworthy and we all breathe a sigh of relief.