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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Deer, positive dog training, and the battle with gravity

Bouts of frenzied barking punctuated last night. After our recent intruder incident, adrenaline jolted me awake each time. However, our wildlife camera showed several coyote visits, including one from this handsome fellow, who appears to be a newcomer. Perhaps the dogs were barking at the coyotes.Early this morning, K and I floated out into a misty forest that teemed with mule deer. The first group relaxed atop a hogback and didn't move a muscle, even as I called K to my side, fumbled for my camera, and captured a few photos.
After I called her, K sat solidly next to me, keeping her eyes pinned on my face.As we headed toward Hug Hill, our local high point, another small group of deer appeared. As an experiment, I didn't call K. On her own, she ran a short distance toward the deer and then stopped, as if she anticipated my call. In the photo, a deer is visible almost directly above K, partly obscured by a pine tree.After standing stock still briefly, she chose to run back to me without me calling her, and I showered her with treats and praise. At the time of the next photo, K stood at my side while the deer 'snuck' away.When K was a puppy and I was just learning about positive training methods, I distinctly remember my trainer telling me that a dog could reach this point - where the temptation (e.g., the deer) serves as the cue for the dog to do the right thing - without a word from the human. But, I also distinctly remember that I didn't believe her. Now, I do. Wow - positive training rocks!

After our deer experiment, we continued the wet, foggy, and rocky climb to Hug Hill. Just as we arrived, the fog parted for an instant, uncovering a spectacular sight.
Then, the fog crept toward us and the view gradually disappeared.
It felt magical, as if the universe had aligned perfectly for us to gain solace from the beauty of the snowy peaks.

After a slippery descent from Hug Hill, I dropped K off at home and headed out for what I hoped would be a higher intensity ride. Alas, it didn't turn out that way. My body still felt heavy and tired from sadness, and my biking reflexes were a split second slow. In fact, as I kept fruitlessly trying to push the pace, I crashed dramatically, twice in rapid succession. Both falls happened as I negotiated tricky spots that I've ridden cleanly innumerable times. A short time later, I saw a friend who stared and said, "OMG, what happened to you?!? Are you badly hurt?". Nope, just covered in mud and scrapes from sliding on gravelly mud. Given the precarious instability of my spine and the unrelenting back spasms I've had since S's death, I feel lucky that I escaped with an unscathed back and neck.

After my crashes, I accepted that I needed to take it easy - my muscles, nerves, and brain are still operating in slow motion due to the stress of S's death. In mountain biking, an instant of sluggish or tentative riding is enough to let gravity win its never-ending battle to topple me.

As I spun easily, not pushing the pace, more deer filtered out of the forest to watch my passage. This boldness is odd in our rural deer. Usually, they flee from humans because they remember dodging bullets and losing herd members during the previous fall's hunting season.

The first pair wowed me with their swiveling ears. Both deer had their huge ears pointed toward me although their eyes peered in opposite directions.
Then, they decided that I truly wasn't a threat and one began eating the tender willow leaves.
A second doe decided to nibble on an itchy spot on her shedding coat.
Finally, I glided off, leaving the does to continue their activities, only to come upon a young buck with velvet antlers. Like the doe above, he had an itchy coat and wasn't leery of nibbling it while I watched.
I again marveled at the tame behavior of these deer. Perhaps the foggy, almost haunted-house atmosphere, which had returned with a vengeance after I glimpsed the mountains, gave the deer a false sense of security. In the photo below, fog completely shrouded a high wooded ridge.
Although I'd enjoyed the surreal feeling of riding among the deer, I arrived home beaten, battered, and muddy - both physically and emotionally. But, I had no time to dwell on it - which is a good thing, I think. During the last leg of my ride, I'd concluded that I needed to be more patient, allowing myself time to find a new equilibrium, before charging off for fast mountain bike rides. Coping with the end of one era and the start of another has stressed my soul and body.


  1. I love the example of K using the deer as her own cue. I'm not sure our training with recalls is that strong, but I knew that Lilly understood how I always put myself between her and approaching dogs ... when she began changing heel sides on her own when she saw another dog approaching on a trail.

    I still cue it most of the time, but it was nice to see she recognized the pattern and could act herself, if she felt nervous.

    That's the beauty of positive training. It teaches dogs to think, really think.

    Sorry to hear about the crashes, but I'm glad you're mostly OK. A heavy heart weighs down more than a mt bike.

  2. how lucky you are to live in nature.....i think K is in the same stage of grieving you are.....she wants to please you, to make you proud....glad you were only slightly battered and muddy.....take your time, peddle slowly.....

  3. I know how much it helps to get outdoors and take in all the sights and sensations of nature, but I think it's wise to take it down a notch for now and like you said, get your equilibrium back. Take care of yourself.

  4. Be gentle with yourself - your heavy heart is weighing you down. Hasn't our CO landscape received a lot of spring moisture? I'm so glad for the rain since we live against the Nat'l Forest (where many of our lodge poles are dying from beetle kill).

  5. I suspect you already knew not to push yourself but hoped that doing so might dull the ache of the happenings of the past week.

    How wonderful to see this response in K, coming when she knew she should without being called.

    I'm also in love with the fog hanging on the mountains. On some of our hikes the entire valleys below us look like misty lakes. We watch as the fog rises into beautiful clouds overhead. It is indeed magical, even without the snow.

  6. Wow, the lessons are coming at you hard and fast! I find it interesting and a little telling that you are focused on K's learning while your heavy heart wants to thrash and stomp and go fast. Hmmm, isn't working too well??? For me anyway, the hardest part about feeling emotionally beat up, is being gentle with myself. I always feel I'm tougher than all that but really have no basis for that thought. The loss of a loved family member even if it happens multiple times isn't something "you get good at" so take the time to be gentle, go slow let it all wash around in and over you.....pretty soon you'll be shredding again.
    I went out for a road bike ride in somewhat new territory after our Mowgli passed ....I must have been pretty deep in sorrowful thought as I found myself completely lost and rather disoriented. It actually made me laugh as it is just what would happen to Mowgli
    Happy Trails Ahead......

  7. Roxanne: I agree that it's so cool how positive training teaches a dog to think. It's neat that Lilly has done a similar thing, using an approaching dog a cue to switch sides.

    KKS, Mary, Barb, NCMtnWoman, NinjaPonyDad: Being gentle on myself isn't something that I'm good at. But, every one of you said very true things that I took to heart. I'm trying. Thanks for your caring!


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