How Not to Train Your Canine Athlete

My beloved layabout, as capable of lassitude as she is of Olympian exertion

Since Rosa was four months old I began to mold her into a prize athlete. I let her off leash to run in the Prescott National Forest. She shot up ahead of me, gleeful in her freedom. Mostly she stayed on the trail.

I found she had no intention of losing me. To her, as to me, the whole venture was an “us” thing. She always checked in, reconnoitering with her human as he trudged along. As the hikes got longer and more formalized, I’d be humping a backpack full of stuff.

I grew to love watching her go charging up, up some long, long incline or ravine toward whatever scurrying squirrel or maddening bird had drawn her ire, and bark with a will, lest the varmint think it could invade her domain with impunity.

I began to see this was no ordinary dog. Her strength and stamina amazed me.

As she got older, I grew to specialize in walks of five, six, seven or eight miles with my faithful Airedale.

One of my favorites was Smith Ravine. We’d set off from the Walker Road mile-five trail head. Shouldering my backpack of dry T-shirts or jerseys and drinking and eating provisions, I’d labor over crests and ridges and hills, down the cool, shadowed ravine itself, then back up into the forest primeval, leading to what I call “the glade,” an open area at the two-and-a-half-mile point where you could strip off your sweaty T-shirt, sit on a downed log, and drink water. At the resting point, to which Rosa unfailingly reported, I’d give her water in the collapsible bowl, as well as treats such as dog biscuits or pieces of bacon from that morning’s breakfast.

After catching her breath she’d slurp up her water, snap up her snack, then position herself further up the trail, issuing a challenge: press on, making it a three-miler (six miles round trip), or be a terminal sissy. More often than not, I rose to the challenge, though the add-on entailed more difficult climbing on an already challenging hike, to hit the fire road near Spruce Mountain. By the time we got back to the car, I was proud of both of us. Smith Ravine’s a tough hike.

So when the beat dog lay about the house all next day, I let her. She’d earned it.

But things changed as she aged. Rosa started to get separated from me. I began to lose control.

One time I parked along White Spar but left my SUV along the actual road itself, not in the big lot (adjacent to the campground, the lot from where dirt bikers set off), and leash-walked her across White Spar Road to the entrance of trail 9451. As was my wont, I let her free a couple hundred yards away from vehicular traffic. Off she shot.

It’s a classic hike, full of new chapters, new looks. Three and a half miles through raw breathtaking terrain, from close, dark forests to “fallen-chopstick” areas as I think of them, places where the forest service guys thin timber for fire prevention, leaving downed, even charred logs strewing the hills. Finally you get to the intersection of trail 9451A.

But where was Rosa?

I sat on a stump and drank water, had a snack, caught my breath, and worried.

Finally, I headed back alone.

In about a mile, I saw her running toward me up the trail. She seemed hysterical with something akin to fatigue. But it couldn’t be fatigue! I had never seen her tired before on the trail! At home, recuperating, but not during the Test itself! This was a dog who’d charged up Granite Mountain five or six times, and stood at the top on those long legs and big paws, grinning down at me as I huffed and puffed my way up, as if jeering, “What took you so long?”

Her disappearances happened more and more as she got to be two, three years of age. In my blind determination to toughen the both of us, I didn’t see it. One time she went off on her own in the wilds of Aspen Creek Trail. Not that trail itself (trail 48), but the two-trail hike setting off from the parking lot, trails 327 and 393, I forgot which one’s first. I took this hike to another glade, where trail signposts are fixed in the ground pointing this way and that. It was unusual for her to not run up as I sat down for my mid-hike break, but I got there and she did not.

I called her, which never works.

Finally, I changed out of my sweat-soaked shirt into a dry one, got the pack back on, and headed back.

I saw her along the way, and should have snapped the leash on then, but figured I’d see her again nearer the car and then collect her, allowing her more time to cavort.

Big mistake.

I returned to the Forester; she did not.

Minutes become a quarter hour. I filled with melancholic and decidedly bathetic emotions sitting behind the wheel. Had I seen the last of this boon companion? Tchaikovsky violins sawed away in my head, a soundtrack to my deep sadness. Pathetique for the lost canine. An ominous, light wind over the trees mocked my inaction.

There was nothing for it but to go back in. Dead tired, I hit the trail again, on rubber legs. It had been easily a mile or a mile and a half when I saw Rosa running up the trail toward me. She looked relieved to see me, but somehow mad, mad in its true sense. She was crazed with disorientation.

I fell on her, too relieved to be angry, snapped the leash on, and led her back to my Forester. I could not imagine riding home without my smelly, furry friend groaning and stretching in the back seat.

Barb would kill me if I lost her.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but something made me that evening confess to my wife the mishap.

Rather than scold me – she found my woodsy liberalism with the dog ill advised — Barb said, “No wonder you were so tired.” I’d stumbled through the door like a zombie.

I began to consider that the dog might be fatigued, but continued to dismiss the conjecture. She was growing into her maturity. If anything, she should be capable of bigger, longer hikes than ever! At the time, to some degree I ascribed her disappearances to willful desire on her part to do her own thing. It would not be beyond her to disrespect my authority, as was amply demonstrated in the house, where no vocal command engendered any reaction on her part but blithe disregard. Airedales are a willful, haughty breed, hard to train.

But then I began to see she was tired. Maybe it was the way she would choose to rest, belly down on the dirt, and pant, that began to tell me something was amiss. I lost her coming back from Granite Mountain and some poor guy found her lying down in the dirt, panting. He had a rope or leash and secured her somehow, led her back to the trail head where I’d been in a frenzy of worry and guilt. Sometimes when I had her on the leash, I would have a hard time getting her back to the car. I’d have to stop and let her try to catch her breath, let her dig a little depression in or along the trail, scratching away scree and dirt and pine needles, particularly in summer heat, to make a cooling bed. Then, as I stood by holding the leash, she pressed herself down into the cool earth to collect herself, before I could coax her back up to go with me to the parked car.

On long hikes now, her eyes began to plead.

Something had changed.

What was up? During a vet visit I brought up the problems I was having on the long hikes. If the dog seemed so keen to begin with, why was she manifesting these behaviors now?

“They’ll do anything for us,” the vet said, trying to give me a hint as to how I’d ever got her to do such marathons to begin with.

Yes. They’ll do anything for us.

Even run till their hearts burst.

STAY TUNED FOR THE THIRD AND FINAL INSTALLMENT OF THIS DOG SAGA!

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