On Trail!

I often feel as if I call out "Finn, on trail!" a hundred times during some of our trail runs. Especially in areas where there is abundant wildlife moving about.

I end up saying "On trail!" most frequently when my own pace is slower. Finn has more time to find mischief just off the trail if I'm walking, or taking photos, or just running slowly. This was the case last Friday when we went to Ponderosa State Park for a morning run. I was feeling tired, so more willing to stop and take photos.

Lily Marsh, Ponderosa State Park, ID
There were a few ducks in this marsh. Given Finn's intense desire to swim after ducks, I was pretty stern with my "Finn, on trail!" commands through here.

Other end of Lily Marsh.
Finn on foot bridge bisecting Lily Marsh.
I constantly marvel at the differences between Finn - a herding breed - and Maia and Meadow - malamutes - when running trails. When the girls were my trail companions, they rarely left the trail to chase squirrels or other wildlife. Birds? Not worth their notice (although Maia often delighted at the sudden flush of a grouse, creating a thrilling loud whoosh of wings). Maia was always in lead position, followed by me, then Meadow - a formation I fondly refer to as The Malamute Sandwich. Maia's focus was on going from Point A to Point B along the shortest trail route, using her senses of smell and hearing to take stock of what was going on around us in the forest. If either of the girls stopped and put their noses up high, inhaling deeply, I knew to grab their collars or attach their leashes, because something large - elk, deer, cow, sheep, moose - was nearby. If Maia's tail suddenly dropped and she acted nervous, a bear, or wolf, was nearby. Maia would use her nose to steer me away from the perceived danger.

Maia accepted direction from me at intersections regarding which way to go, but after a few miles out she would start to show concern that perhaps we were getting a bit far from home or the car. (This inclination increased as she aged and so our range slowly decreased; I always let Maia determine pace and distance.) If I suggested taking a route that wasn't the shortest way back to our starting point, Maia would give me a look as if to say, "Are you sure?" She always knew, even if we were in new territory. I took great comfort in knowing that I would never be lost in the woods with Maia along. Meadow doesn't have the same sense of direction, which I guess is why she was always happy to hang in the back and follow Maia's lead. Meadow, though, always had our backs, and that provided a huge sense of security for me and Maia in the forest. Meadow is fearless.

"Nice view, huh?" Finn demonstrating his uncanny ability to not look at the camera.

Finn, on the other hand, primarily uses his eyes when on the trail, and anything that moves is fair game in his mind. Birds, squirrels, ducks...even bees and butterflies on occasion. He's constantly jumping a few feet off the trail into the undergrowth in vain attempts to get that squirrel or chipmunk that dashes across the trail or up a tree as we approach, chattering away. Because he's so quick, he can do this repeatedly over the course of our run without ever falling behind. (Who knows how much ground he actually covers on any given run?) However, if we come near a deer, cow or horse - even a cat - that doesn't move to run away, beyond a quick glance Finn doesn't seem to notice. He doesn't use his nose like the girls do. It's all about the chase, about herding.

It also appears that Finn has absolutely no sense of direction in terms of where we started from. I wouldn't ever rely on him to find our way home if lost. Nor do I believe he can warn me about bears, like Maia could; instead, I fear he'd chase a bear - he already, has, once - which could create a very dangerous situation for both him and me. But, if Finn has covered the territory at least once before, when we come upon intersections, he always remembers which way we went the last time we were there. Perhaps this is because I've trained him to wait for me at all intersections until I give him a release with which direction to follow: "Finn...that way!" with a point of the hand is one of his favorite releases/commands. Or perhaps it's because this breed functions on a memory of patterns? There have been many times, running familiar terrain, when I'm lost in my thoughts and all of the sudden Finn stops in front of me or slows and lets me pass before I realize that oh, yeah, we're at a trail intersection. Good boy! Finn's ability to remember the direction we went the last time we were on a given trail - even if it was weeks before - is something I don't remember seeing in Maia.

Different dogs, different breeds, different talents. A working breed like a malamute would be most valued for following a track without distraction. Think Iditarod. A herding breed like an Aussie would be valued for an ability to quickly view the creatures needing herding - like sheep - and then covering whatever ground is necessary to move them where they need to go.

So: commands like "On trail" and "on by," and if those fail, "come" have been invaluable while running trails with Finn.

Finn, demonstrating his ability to respond to the "on trail" command after chasing yet another chipmunk.
Enjoying Payette Lake.
Finn demonstrating his response to "Come!" so we can start running again.
Back at the trail head, another great trail run finished.
It has been an interesting adjustment - and learning curve - running trails with Finn. He's a wonderful companion, don't get me wrong. But...I miss the intelligence of Maia, and the goofiness of Meadow, who kept me and Maia entertained with her switchback cutting and other antics on the trails. That girl has a sense of humor, where Maia is all seriousness and business, completing the task at hand. The make a complimentary pair. I laughed at, and talked to, the girls so much more during our trail runs than I do with Finn. I guess that's because, with Finn, I'm too focused on making sure he doesn't go tearing off after a deer, or calling him back after he's treed a squirrel.

As both girls age, I find myself reminiscing more and more about all the times we shared on the trails. Miles and miles and miles. Indeed, I once estimated - conservatively - how many running miles (trails and roads) Maia has covered with me over the years: 10,000 miles. That's a ton of fun! I keep a running log, and so the estimate isn't far-fetched. Meadow, two years younger than Maia, and retired from running at the same time as Maia (the girls hate not doing everything together, so it simply wasn't possible in my view to continue to take Meadow running when Maia displayed a disinclination to continue running) accumulated perhaps just few hundred fewer miles. Pretty amazing.

Finn - with all his side-tracking and dashing up and back on the trails as we run - will likely exceed even Maia's mileage over the course of his lifetime, assuming of course that my own legs don't give out anytime soon.

I can't imagine a better way to develop a deep, intelligent and elemental bond with my dogs than running trails with them.
Rebecca WallickComment