It’s past midnight in a torrential downpour. We were alone somewhere above 12,000 feet in the backcountry of Colorado. I was soaked, scared, freezing and lost…That’s when Schuck Handsome saved my ass…
Anyone that has ventured into a conversation with me about dogs and training knows that I hold a canine’s perceptive ability to a high regard. Arrogance often leaves humans wondering ‘why that dog cannot learn…’ when the truth is, more often than not, that we are just failing to listen.
Dog’s listen. That’s pretty much all they do. They will establish patterns within your pack whether you intend to teach them or not. And make no mistake, dogs train their humans constantly.
Proper dog training is so important. I am not talking about throwing paw (although I know that can be fun to teach them). I am talking about commands and pack structure. You exhibit yourself as a calm confident leader to your canine companion and you will see a relaxed and balanced dog as a result. A dog that knows no matter what unknown comes their way (bicycle, postman, vacuum etc) you have their back and will keep them safe is a dog that understands safety and security. Not going to talk too much about HOW you get to this point with your dog (I do FREE EVALUATIONS in Missoula, MT) but I want to talk about the fringe benefits of this relationship…and how it saved my life one night.
Let’s look at ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs -->
For those unfamiliar with Maslow’s triangle, it basically breaks down how we as humans cannot achieve the next level of the triangle without the previous level being taken care of. For example, you will not worry so much about updating your Facebook status if your pants are on fire. Once you douse the fire (Physiological) and put on dry clean pants (safety) you can them craft an epic Facebook update (Belonging).
This sequence of need is often referred to when discussing human psychology but I believe it can be applied to the dog world as well. 99% of all issues I see plaguing pet dogs is derived from lack of structure in home. Canines are just not suited to calmly interpret the modern world. That inability to understand how to handle: cars, doorbells, neighbor dogs, bikes etc can manifest in a lot of ways. Sometimes it is obvious (a dog bites your hand off). Sometimes it is more subtle and unrealized. Bottom line though is that many untrained dogs rarely get above the ‘Safety’ level of the triangle. They may know they have shelter and food…but, if they do not think their human owner will protect and lead them, the modern world will be a stressful torrent on their day to day life. You provide a child a safe home and consistent leadership – they will be able to focus and flourish in school. I believe the same to be true with dogs. It is easy to understand providing the physiological needs to dogs. We all feed our dogs and keep them warm (I hope). It is the ‘safety’ level that often gets misunderstood. Training and structure will create calm, balance and a feeling of safety in modern day packs. Once that safety is met, the canine (like the human) can focus and flourish in 'school'.
I always say to clients ‘training should be a way of life.’ Your dog will love you for it and the two of you will connect in amazing ways. You will be able to read your dog in subtle ways and they will cue into even the slightest twitch of your hand. I mean we are teaching dogs to sniff out bombs, track escaped convicts and alert on increased blood pressure…Their ability to perceive is incredible. Lay a foundation of training and engagement with your own dog and they will know you better than you know yourself…
Ok, keep all that neat dog stuff in mind as I apply it to a survival story… Back in 2009 I was the photo intern at ‘Backpacker Magazine’ in Boulder Colorado. I knew no one in that area… I also had no money... So each weekend was spent in the outdoors with my best bud: Schuck Handsome (about a year old back then).
Having access to all the best gear at Backpacker, all we did was get out into the backcountry in search of badass campsites and climbing spots. One weekend I was eager to do something I had never done: camp above 12,000 feet. Schuck and I raided the gear closet and took off after work on a rainy Friday. Here we are at the trailhead (I was 22 back then btw).
Hiking in we didn’t see anyone. Seems the rain kept everyone home. At one point I thought I heard thunder, only to realize we spooked a herd of elk and they were tearing off up the hillside which was awesome to see up close. Eventually the rain subsided and we reached the summit just before dark. Even at dusk the topography at that elevation was pretty incredible. No trees to speak of, tons of rocks and plenty of sharp drops. We ventured off trail a ways and found a great campsite right on the edge of a cliff. We setup camp, had dinner and turned in as it started to drizzle again…
Around midnight I was jolted awake by the loudest lightning crack I had ever heard. A huge storm had rolled in and I could see the hair on Schuck’s head was electrified and standing up. There we were, we had made it above 12,000 feet to camp. Thing about that elevation is there is not much that grows tall... including trees. Our tent was pretty much the biggest object sitting out in the open in a lightning storm. I grabbed the rain gear and a headlamp and we bolted. We navigated back to the trail and started running downhill as fast as we could as the rain started coming down. Lighting was striking so close you could feel the concussions in your chest... it was truly terrifying. We eventually sought refuge in a glade of trees – I know I know, trees are not the safest place to be. But that glade was much more desirable than being out in the open. We hunkered down for about 20 minutes. Once the lightning had subsided we decided to make our way back to the tent. Although the lighting was distant, the rain was unrelenting. It was pouring. Like, if you were inside at the office you would have pointed outside and said ‘wow its REALLY coming down out there...’ But we weren’t inside. We were outside, at 12,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado soaked and starting to get cold. As Schuck and I worked our way back up the trail I had difficulty seeing where we were going. The rain was falling so hard it actually worked against the beam of light coming from my headlamp. My visibility was all of 2-3 feet. We walked up trail when I had the sinking realization that I had NO idea where the tent was. I knew it was at least 100 feet off trail…somewhere near a cliff…perfect. Schuck and I were walking back and forth, I had him in a tight heel just so I could keep him close…I had no idea where we needed to go. It was then I stopped and looked down at the pup. He seemed fine, in fact I think he may have been chewing on a stick on the trail…I was dangerously cold and needed to get warm soon. I gave Schuck his release command and said out of desperation ‘take us home….’
Now, that is not a command Schuck knew. We'd spent the last year training together and he was sharp on his obedience but that phrasing was not apart of anything I had ever formally taught him…
Nevertheless, Schuck immediately turned and went back down the trail. He kept a slow pace to make sure I stayed close then took a turn off into the brush. We traversed beneath a rock face and through tall grass. I barely had time to start fearing that we could step off a cliff at any moment…before there it was. The Tent! Schuck was standing proudly next to it almost as if to stay ‘here it is moron now lets get inside!’
To make a long story short: We got inside, I almost burned the tent down by catching my jetboil on fire, but eventually I warmed up. Woke up later that night to find Schuck shivering since his double coat had been soaked to the core. I wrapped him up in a space blanket and pulled him into my sleeping bag (was doing a gear review for the magazine on that particular bag…wrote a glowing endorsement). Woke up to this face..still wrapped up in the space blanket :)
And an amazing sunrise.
Tying this all back to training. Back then I would say ‘I have no idea how Schuck knew to go back to the tent.’ But after spending the last 7 years studying dogs and seeing them pickup on the smallest of cues I now believe he knew exactly what I needed. He could probably smell the adrenaline in my blood, hear the scared tones of my voice and combine that with 100+ other cues that he had absorbed over the past year training with me to conclude that we needed shelter.
Take the time to make training a way of life with your dog. You can teach them the sit, down and come command but if you build your relationship right, you will inadvertently develop a level of communication with your canines that even you, the human, may never see the full potential of…until your life depends on it.