This weekend we escaped to the mountains for a few days, trading in the 95+ degree days that Fort Collins experienced for cool mountain breezes and remnants of snow. Of course, the dog came along, as did our adventurous friends Charissa and Tyler and their two pups, Dylon and Chip.
We set off Friday night after work, drove two hours all the way through Rocky Mountain National Park, found our destination trail head, grabbed our packs and three leashes and hit the trail. The plan was to hike 5.5 miles to a lake that first night . . . but as adventures are prone to do, it didn’t work out exactly the way we had intended.
Eventually we were wandering around in the dark on a service road looking for the next part of the trail. Definitely a great thing to do past 11:00 PM when we’re worn out, starting to get cold, and the dogs have just scared us half to death with an inquisitive incident too close to a gushing river culvert for comfort.
We give up the search for the trail and find a campsite. Not perfect, but serviceable for the night. Thank you, to whatever organization owned the dump truck and backhoe that provided us shelter from the wind and a barrier in case of early morning travelers on the service road.
The next day we continued the search for the trail, and finally decided that it was obscured by the rushing river and with three pups it would not be safe to attempt a crossing. An alternate plan was decided on, and we made a camp, in a beautiful spot directly under the continental divide.
The dogs romped in the swamp and streams, we sat in the sun and played cards, we all took naps in the middle of the day (can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten to do that!), and generally rested and enjoyed being out in the fresh air. It wasn’t the 20 mile hiking loop that we had planned. But this was perfect.
On the way back to the trail head the next day, Roo and Dylon enjoyed some off-leash scurries through the woods and brambles along the trail. After a while, Roo started to venture further from the path to the right - in the direction of the river (and the very steep embankments leading down to it). At this point, I started feeling a little bit like a helicopter parent: constantly worried about where he was, nagging, continuously asking him to check in with me. . . none of which thrilled him very much, and it wasn’t very relaxing and peaceful for me either! Eventually I just put him back on leash for a bit so that I wasn’t constantly fussing with him.
Reflecting on this after our trip concluded, I have connected a few dots about this situation that have shed some light (although not excused) my downslide from relaxed off-leash moderator into overbearing dog-mom. And I thought, “If I’m seeing this response in myself so easily, when I generally trust my dog off-leash and know the disadvantages of constantly fussing without a good reason, how easy it is for my clients to default to this type of communication with their dogs?”
As far as I can tell, my micromanagement of my dog in this situation boils down to the emotion of fear, residual from the near-mishap that occurred in the dark on Friday night. The horrifying images and feelings that come to mind when thinking of the “what-ifs” of that scenario are still uncomfortable, almost a week later, so it makes sense that not quite 2 days post-incident my brain would still be especially prone to anxious or fearful responses connected to some of the same stimuli.
This has been a helpful thing for me to remember, and recognize how it so easily infiltrated my attitude when interacting with my pup. Without addressing the underlying emotions of anxiety and fear that we have with our dogs (in whatever scenario, due to whatever history), these emotions will have a significant impact on how we communicate, to the point of undermining our training goals.
I am doing more thinking and researching on the impacts of emotions (good and bad) on our communication style, and how this can affect our experiences with our dogs, and plan to write more about this topic soon. But in the mean time, I want to leave you with a challenge: if you find yourself being a “helicopter dog-parent,” look at the scenario. What underlying feelings are causing you to feel the need to control every step your dog makes? These feelings could be completely legitimate (“my dog is too friendly with kids and we’re walking by a playground and I’m scared he’ll jump up”), and I’m certainly not telling you to turn your dog loose without a second thought. But just think about it. You might just realize, like I did, that your anxiety is residual from a previous scenario and not directly because of the situation at hand.