Checking in

Running with malamutes has taught me to reinterpret behaviors I once paid little attention to, or even ignored.

Maia (top photo) alerts me to danger. First, with her tail. It's normally held high and proud above her back, slightly curled and falling off her left hip, fluffy and white. If she lets it drop while we're running, I instantly pay attention. I have learned - through trial and error on my part - that her dropped tail means she has seen or smelled something that makes her uneasy. She'll often remain up front, leading me and Meadow down the trail, but I can sense in her body language that she's more alert, and cautious. Often, a few minutes later and farther down the trail, her tail comes back up and all is good with the world. But sometimes, after dropping her tail, if she's especially uneasy, she'll position herself beside me and nudge my hip or hand with her nose, even gently block my path.

This body language of Maia's allowed me to see a majestic wolf, in the forest, the summer of 2006. Unbeknown to me, he was following us. Maia had been uneasy, running just ahead of me with tail down, when she suddenly stopped and turned back to look behind us, off into the trees. The sun's slanted beams were cutting through the forest, acting like a spotlight on the eyes and coat of the wolf. He, too, stopped. We all stared at one another, briefly and in utter silence, before he quietly turned and pranced away from us. It was a magical moment for me, and I'm forever grateful to Maia for showing me the wolf. Maia, and Meadow for that matter, seemed relieved he was leaving and remained vigilant for another couple of miles down the trail. To this day, I'm convinced that wolf was simply curious about the two creatures who looked like him and were trotting through his territory. With a human.

Maia's tail also alerts me to bear. More than once. She definitely doesn't want to be anywhere near a bear. Nor do I, so we agree on that point. Meadow begs to disagree, however. At least once, she chased one. I didn't realize it at the time - I thought she'd chased a deer - and it wasn't until I asked her to come to me that the black bear (hidden from my sight behind a huge stump) let out a roar of displeasure that caused the hair on my neck to rise, and all three of us to quickly retreat!

So I've learned to trust Maia implicitly. Where once I would make her continue on our route even when she sent me clear signals that she was concerned, I now let her decide. If I agree with her that we should turn and go back the way we came, her relief is palpable. Her tail almost always returns to it's usual jaunty position as soon as we head back for the car.

Meadow? Well, she's generally just along for the ride. My happy-go-lucky dog, she seems to have no fears or concerns. Bear, moose, elk - it's all fun to her, so I have to watch her closely to prevent her from chasing. When we were visited by the wolf, though, her tail also fell behind her as we all retreated from that section of forest - first time I've seen that in Meadow. She showed no inclination to chase him.

I rely on Meadow in a different way. She's got my back. She tends to follow behind me, content to let Maia lead (unless she's in a teasing mood and trying to steal the lead to get a rise out of Maia). I feel safer, out there in the forest, knowing that Meadow's presence will discourage any animal from approaching me from behind.

Meadow constantly checks in with me as we run along a trail or snowy forest road. After hanging back to smell something, or sometimes simply to let some space grow between us so she can dash past both me and Maia with a bounce to her gait and a grin on her face, she'll be sure to come right alongside me when she could just as easily pass several feet to one side. Often, she'll come alongside, matching my pace for a few steps - I'm here, mom - so I can gently touch her head or shoulder, then push ahead to catch up with Maia, or fall behind me again. It took a while for me to see this pattern, and realize she was checking in; that's when I started confirming it with a brief touch of her head and a murmured "Hi, Meadow." If Meadow is ahead of me for any stretch, she's the one who always stops and looks back to make sure I'm keeping up, never getting too far ahead. If I ask them both to "wait" Meadow's always the first to comply. All of these slight but important gestures strengthen our bond and make me feel protected.

In their own ways - probably with some cooperation between them, a sort of pack-oriented division of labor - they've created a secure cocoon for me to run in when we're out and alone in the woods. A safe bubble that allows me to concentrate on the sights, sounds, smells, the absolute wonder of the forested world we travel through on our runs.
Rebecca WallickwolfComment