A few years ago, on a road trip from Montana to Oregon via the Olympic Peninsula, I hiked to Cape Flattery, a wave-crashed cliff on the very northwest tip of the continental US. Cape Flattery lies on the edge of the Makah Reservation, a tribe famous for hunting humpback and gray whales from wooden canoes.
Before heading to the trail, I stopped at the Makah Cultural Museum to see some relics from the tribe’s whaling hey days and buy a $10 Recreational Permit to hike the Cape Trail. The woman working at the museum that day was also named Mary and we talked at length about the ocean, the land and her people. She was proud and open and meeting her was one of the highlights of that road trip.
As I was leaving, I asked her if there were any rules for dogs on the trail, whether they needed to be leashed. Mary smiled and said, “No, we don’t have any rules for dogs. Dogs are better behaved when they live by their own rules.”
Wiser words have never been spoken. Here in New Mexico, I hike every day with four dogs: my two, Bobo the cattle dog and Freckles the Blonde Coyote. Occasionally my neighbors’ dogs join us on our walks as well, giving me six or seven large canine hiking companions.
These dogs and I have hiked hundreds of miles in this desert. We’ve crossed paths with cattle, horses, coyotes, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, jackrabbits and a whole herd of goats and never once have I had cause to put any of them on a leash.
Dogs like these are rare in the world. They’re not so much pets as my partners. You can’t train dogs like these. You have to travel with them. Dogs evolved to travel alongside people; walking over the Earth with a dog brings out something instinctive in both of you. You become a leader, clear, calm and capable and they become your allies, obedient, loyal and willing to follow you to the ends of the Earth, no matter what you might encounter on the way.
I don’t tell these dogs what to do. They know what to do. We’ll hike for hours and never once will I give any of them a command. My dogs have all learned their large animal lessons and know better than to chase anything big enough to turn the tables and chase them back. Occasinally, Dio and Freckles will chase a rabbit, but if I spot the animal first, it’s mine and if I show them my open palm, they won’t go after it. It’s amazing how a few extra vertical feet helps me spot things before the dogs. Watch for movement; theres a lot of life in the world.
Coyotes are the diciest encounters out here. If I see the ‘yote first, it’s mine, but every now and then, Freckles and Dio get a good chase. I’ve seen my dogs make physical contact with coyotes and maybe it’s because my dogs are all large and athletic or maybe it’s because Freckles is a hybrid, but nobody has ever gotten hurt. Usually they circle each other and at most, bump shoulders, sizing each other up, but then they each go their own way. I do know people out here who have lost small dogs and cats to coyotes, but so far, mine seem to have some kind of canine truce with our wild neighbors.
It’s too quiet out here to yell and I rarely whistle. If all four of my dogs are off running around, out of sight, all I need to do to get them back is stop walking. If I stand still for more than a minute or two, all four will come running, even the deaf coyote. If I sit down to rest, they’ll all go lay in the closest shade, waiting patiently to see where we’ll go next.
New dogs joining our pack catch on almost immediately. Lately, I’ve been dog sitting a Bernese mountain dog named Trinity who was badly abused and has a tendency to cower at people, other dogs and anything that moves or makes noise. After a few hikes with the pack, however, she’s a different dog. Her head and tail are up, she runs off on her own, exploring the world and comes right back with the other dogs when I stop to rest. Hiking in all this open space frees her from her anxieties. Out here, the world is a good place to be a dog.
Freckles, my Blonde Coyote hybrid is the wildest of them all. On our walks, she’ll often disappear for an hour at a time. I usually have no idea where she is, but she’s always aware of me and will come back if I stop to rest. In all our wanderings, I’ve only lost her once. I found her, ecstatic, waiting for me at home.
This desert is an ideal place for dogs like these. They are a product of this environment and I can’t imagine Freckles living anywhere else. But dogs can learn to live by their own rules – the rules of the pack, the rules of the trail – anywhere. My dogs and I have been hiking in 48 states. If they’re required to be on a leash, I will leash them, but I have every confidence that I could walk from one coast to the other with them running free.
Recently, I spent all day walking around the Stanford campus, home to a zillion dumb, fat squirrels, with both my dogs off leash. Not once did they go after one of those chubby morsels. We’ve faced far bigger game than squirrels: In Montana, for a few unforgettable moments, Bowie and I shared a trail with a Grizzly bear. Bowie was a rock by my side and we all went our separate ways, peacefully.
Europe is a great place to be a dog. In Germany, we saw dozens of dogs off leash, perfectly behaved, crossing streets, walking through stores, sleeping under restaurant tables, running through fields. Never once did we see a bad dog, an aggressive dog, or an obnoxious dog. Even those on leash walked calmly, never pulling.
If more dogs lived by their own rules, this world would be a better place.