Thursday, December 31, 2009

Celeste Goes Off-Leash

Most dogs are happiest with some off-leash time and, amidst concrete and urbanization, it is hard to find a place to safely let them roam. A dog knows when he's wearing a long line, knows that he's tethered and reliant on your choices instead of making his own. It's one part of dog guardianship I hate, these restrictions and choices denied.

There's a beautiful off-leash park near my parents' home. It's adjacent to the smaller dog park. The off-leash area is more than a 100-acres of grassland, nestled amongst vineyards. I used to love taking Mina there, watching in humor as she dug for squirrels, chased after other dogs, searched high and low for new scents. When it started to become more popular, I stopped taking Mina - she's great in small groups, especially wonderful one-on-one, but in large groups she is overwhelmed and becomes easily aroused and prone to cattle-dog heel nipping.

My dogs are special. Mina likes other dogs, but she is easily stimulated, prone to acting like a buffoon in high-energy situations. She doesn't fight back, which is fine and dandy, but her behavior is likely to get her attacked, which is not so great. Celeste used to like dogs as a puppy, but a poor interaction with a humping Golden Retriever left her prone to grumpy, snarky behavior when dogs try to sniff her butt. She had ehrlichia at the time, a tick-borne disease common to dogs from Mexico, and it can cause pain in the legs and hip - she was very sensitive and having an 80lb dog mount her was actually painful.

Yesterday, when my friend arrived with her dog George, I decided to push Celeste. We didn't let the dogs meet too much, choosing to first walk around the block. Celeste snarked off a couple times, I reinforced when she came to me. When Celeste stood next to George and shared a sniffing fest of grass while maintaining a relaxed posture, I gave her a jackpot of treats. She soon thought sniffing grass with George was an awesome idea. George respected her space and went with the flow - it was important for Celeste to initially work with a dog who is laid-back and completely okay with a few snarks.

We then went to the 100+ acres of off-leash park. There were a lot of dogs. I had to body block the first large dog who ran up to us while we were in the parking lot. It boggles my mind people allow their dogs to run loose in the parking lot. The dog backed off and sniffed George, although he did try to re-approach when we started up the trail. I protected Celeste and we moved on with life.

People who take their dogs to the off-leash hiking area generally have two things in mind: exercise for their dog and exercise for themselves. They are not interested in the politics of the smaller dog park, where cliques abound amongst the humans and where dog fights are far more common. I've only seen one minor skirmish at the hiking area, but dozens at the dog park itself. The dogs who enter the hiking area are generally better behaved and far more dog-savvy than dog park dogs.

Celeste did so well. I can't even begin to express how happy I was with her. She played with George a little and only snarked at one Samoyed who immediately backed off and went on his way. I don't punish for that behavior - it's her coping mechanism and, really, I felt this was an opportunity for her to make some choices in a safe environment with well-behaved dogs. On-leash, she'd never feel this comfortable, always tethered, always certain she had no escape. Off-leash, freedom, choices, the ability to move away or move towards. It was great watching her.

At the end of the walk, there was a 35-lb, black, hairy, collie-ish looking dog who would be the kind of dog to instigate fights in the dog park but would inspire a beautiful chase here. She was fast, submissive, and had the high-tension energy of a collie. She was a beacon - literally every dog within 500' flew at her, ready for the chase. Five dogs, including Celeste, ran like the wind, but she ran faster. There were a couple points when I thought about calling Celeste over, unsure of whether she was playing or entering true predator mode, but then the collie would stop, snapping Celeste out of her stupor and the chase would start again.

I'm learning a lot about Celeste. I learned so much more yesterday than I have in the 2.5 years I've had her and the years of leash-training and trying to get her accustomed to dogs on leash. She likes to chase dogs. She likes really calm dogs. She doesn't like butt-sniffing, but she'll let a dog get a quick sniff in before she tense up, arches her back, tucks her tail, stiffens and then curls her lip. Unlike really frantic, fearful dogs, Celeste is controlled with her movements - this helps prevent really predatory or annoyed dogs from reacting to her displays. They know what it is she does and they know it's show. Not once did any dog take offense to her behavior.

Celeste and I both couldn't have learned and moved forward without this experience. I'm not expecting Celeste to be a perfect angel, happy to meet and greet all dogs. Yesterday, though, she had a lot of positive experiences that helped her push past her comfort zone and into a new zone, where dogs can run and play and sniff and touch without it being a scary experience. She got to be a dog and, because the humans in the hiking area are a different breed than the tense, fearful humans in the dog park, when Celeste reacted fearfully or barked crazily while chasing, no one batted an eyelash. Normal dog behavior wasn't treated as shameful or frightening but part of being a dog. Everyone could see easily that the dogs were having fun, even if they were being loud. And everyone could accept that dogs get rough, they show teeth, they body slam, they do a lot of things that make us cringe inwardly but are integral to being a dog.


Kari in WeHo said...

This is why I miss Alaska dog parks. None are fenced in (which I know some people hate) and I find that causes less fights because there is just so much more freedom to run and play without that caged in feeling that causes tension

Rinalia said...

I agree - I think freedom creates choices and, given the choice, most dogs are going to move away from something scary rather than toward it. But in smaller dog parks, they don't have that choice, and you have a lot of high-energy dogs in a small area....fights are only a natural result.

Mary said...

Where is this magical 100+ acre dog park??? I need one of those!

Rinalia said...

LOL, I do make it sound magical, don't I? That could be my euphoria over Celeste's good behavior talking.

The park is Alston park. It used to be a lot nicer until they tore down all the shrubbery and orchards dotting the off-leash park. Now, it's just a big open space. The other half of the park is on-leash and, imo, a lot nicer.

No heavy hiking or even moderate, it's all easy, leisurely stuff. :)

Just don't go into the "dog park", it's tiny, and way too much...a few dogs have been killed there and fights are pretty frequent during peak hours. The off-leash park is further up and much nicer. :)

Schwang said...

There are way too many people that don't understand how to socialize their dogs, and we've seen way too many of those problems in the Chicago dog parks. We've taken the dogs to a reserve about an hour from us; otherwise, we're just stuck in the city. We did find a park where no one goes and we take the pooches there on "off hours".

Retrieverman said...

Dogs need this sort of exercise and freedom to fulfilled.

One of the things that drives to dogs absolutely barmy.

The most pleasant places I've had the pleasure of visiting on my travels to Europe are London's Hyde Park, where dogs are allowed off-leash, and Paris, where dogs are allowed off-leash virtually everywhere, provided they are close to their person.

By comparison, America is a land of anti-dog authoritarians.

I don't know if you saw the program on National Geographic about the San Francisco Zoo tiger that escaped and killed some people, but one of the more interesting things on that program was how important it was to give zoo animals some choices in their lives.

Rinalia said...

I absolutely agree - there is nothing so special or genuinely wonderful as a dog off-lead, being a dog.

I noticed that about France as well.

I hadn't seen the Nat Geo program. It makes perfect sense, of course.