Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Off leash and on a run

You may not agree, you may not care, but
if you are holding this book you should know
that of all the sights I love in this world—
and there are plenty—very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes. 

         "Dog Songs," Poems by Mary Oliver

Though our seven-and-a-half acres of rocks, trees and bramble—rife with rabbits, spiders, mice, an ornery rattler or several, birds of every color though mostly brown, plus wasps, bees and other bugs—should be more than enough to keep our five mutts amused, apparently it's not quite so.

The pack, front to back: Domino, Felisa, Lucy, Ellie and Roxie. 
Patrolling the very edge of our ranch, where their incessant back-and-forth has created a bare-dirt trail on the inside of the fence, our dogs often stick their noses through any available hole to catch a better view, smell or maybe a nip of another creature just beyond reach.

There are sheep and lambs, goats and kids, some fluffy, all dopey, listlessly munching on the bare scruff left on the ground this far into the dry season.

Felisa, our smallest—smaller than even a newborn lamb—yips and yips and yips, ever more annoyed about being ignored, disrespected even, by the sheep, goats and their young. Even the herder Mauricio, in his mid-twenties and mentally handicapped, seems to sneer at Felisa with an uncomprehending smile.

We've always obsessed about the dogs "getting away" and kept some leashes by the gate to tie the biggest ones when we drove in or out.  But now and then one would get away and send Stew or me looking for them.

Except one time we drove back to the house and it wasn't until about an hour later that we realized our most recent adoptee, Ellie, was not back. Stew walked to the gate and found her on the outside, whining softly, waiting to get back in. "Did you forget me?" she asked. Some escape artist.

A few other times Lucy, our oldest and largest—and the alpha of the pack—got away unnoticed only to return and sit and wait by the gate, her brown eyes sagging with either contrition, confusion or embarrassment.

When we started to go for morning walks, about three or four months ago, we tied all five dogs in an unmanageable, barking tangle. But during the first week, one by one, we let go of the leashes until we'd surrendered any pretense of physical control.

And to our surprise the dogs stayed in a pack, frequently looking back at us, making sure we were still there. No one was running away, and if someone did, just calling their name brought them back into formation.

Now that off-the-leash runs are part of the daily routine, the dogs will demand for us to get going,  barking by the kitchen door right after we finish breakfast. Out the main gate they stampede in a dust storm, like a small herd of cattle, barking and chasing anything on the way, and going in all directions until one of us calls the pack to order. They then continue right or left, wherever we lead. Malcolm, an orange dog who lives outside the gate joins our the walk, as an unofficial member of the gang.

After so much barking from behind the fence, Felisa finally gets the chance to chase Mauricio's sheep, sending them scampering. What fun! Felisa has also tried to spook cows, horses and burros—from a safe distance of ten feet or so, mind you—but they contemptuously ignore her.

Felisa working her way through freshly plowed soil.
There are other detours, oh boy. A fresh pile of horse apples, the canine equivalent of chocolate mousse but a recipe, they assure me, is far tastier and more fragrant.  Or they may all congregate to solemnly sniff a certain pile of something that may be dead, alive or in between. It must be inspected thoroughly. And there's always copious peeing and pooping along the way, left behind like random calling cards, and then kicking some dirt and bolting ahead as if each deposit were a proud achievement.

Returning home is no trick at all: Just one "Let's go home!" and everyone turns on their four heels for the walk back, followed at home by a long, sloppy drink of water and then a long nap and dreams of tomorrow's walk.

Walking the dogs in the morning—or are they walking us?—has been a surprise blessing for everyone, human and canine. For them it's a chance to briefly revert to a previous more animal-like nature,  before they became pets, and for us to stand back and joyfully watch the spectacle.

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