I recently took Sawyer for his first hike. It was the first time he’d been off lead somewhere he might get away from me, and I was nervous. In the hills surrounding Reno, mountain lions aren’t uncommon. One could easily snatch Sawyer away, but mostly I was worried he would realize he was free and take off, perhaps laughing at my stupidity as he went.
It’s about trust, I suppose. In the field, the hunter’s job isn’t to command every turn and retrieve. That’s what training is for. Once you’re hiking around with a shotgun ready to fire, it’s too late to teach the dog to work a ten-yard arc in front of you. He’s your partner, and in many ways more important to the task than the hunter is, so trust him. The dog will find the birds. All you have to do is pull the trigger.
I have trouble with this specific kind of trust because I worry about not having control of the situation. Our other dog, Cooper, is a three-year-old Yorkie and a serious flight risk. Some of my hesitance comes from my experiences with him, but the problem runs deeper than that. I care about doing things well, and doing them right. I want Sawyer to succeed for himself, but also for me. I want him to be good, damn it.
I know that trust won’t come naturally, which is why we hike. That day, I refused to let my nerves win out – he’s a bird dog, after all, and will be expected to not disappear while we’re out hunting. So I put him in his crate, loaded the crate in my car, and headed for the foothills. When we arrived, I checked to make sure I had everything – dog treats, handgun (you might not see the mountain lions, but they see you), plenty of water – and we set off.
He was timid at first. He stayed near me as we climbed into the hills, nudging my calf with his nose a few times, as if to remind me he was there. He slowly gained confidence, venturing farther and farther away. He would run ahead or drop behind, then return, his ears flapping behind him as he hurried to my side. I wondered what he was thinking of the experience. He didn’t seem scared, but wary. I thought wariness was a good response, indicating a propensity for caution but not cowardice.
After we’d hiked a half-mile or so, he relaxed. The car was out of sight, but I could still see across the valley into town – in Reno, the drive from the casinos downtown to the hills with their sagebrush and pines is no more than twenty minutes. I was close to home, but miles from my comfort zone. Every time I wanted to call for Sawyer, I redoubled my effort to ignore him. My job was to lead, his to follow.
As with all inevitabilities, however, mine could be postponed only so long. I felt the change. He caught a scent, or perhaps heard a rustle, and tore off. Just as I’d feared, Sawyer had chosen freedom over submission. I watched him go, his small body low to the ground, the young muscle in his legs propelling him over rocks and brush. I almost defaulted into chase-the-dog mode, but I restrained myself. I pulled my hands away from my mouth, where they had readied themselves to screech a whistle at the dog. I focused entirely on walking – eyes up, long strides.
I soon heard the scrabble of his paws on the dirt behind me. He slowed by my left leg, and again gave it that little nudge. All’s good that touched said, or perhaps don’t worry. Without so much as a snap of my fingers, he had inspected what needed inspecting and returned to his spot.
He needs that trust as much as I do, I think. Some cold morning just over a year from now, no matter how much we’ve trained, it will be time to let go and trust each other not to mess up. The process is daunting – so much can go wrong – but we’ll get there eventually. That hike was the first of many, and a much greater step than I had expected. For just a moment, I forgot my worries and I could feel what it will be like to spend our autumns together, hiking around the rocky, sage-scrubbed hills of Nevada, looking for the birds.