Time for Juno to learn DOWN

I didn’t have a camera on me today, and even if I did, I wouldn’t need it to have the image of today’s hike burned in my brain.  Today I headed out to the hills for a hike with the dogs, which I try to do at least three times a week, and I decided I’d try out a new area.  Last week I discovered a network of trails built by backcountry horsemen, but today when I pulled up, there were a couple of horsetrailers present, so I headed in the opposite direction of where I thought they’d be.

A lot of the hikes I take the dogs on are on old logging roads where there’s no longer any active logging going on, and today’s hike was on just such a road. About 30 minutes in to the hike, I popped out of a trail I’d been exploring that connected two switchbacks of the road.  As usual, Jester was nearest to me, about 30 feet ahead, Juno was next at about 40 feet, and Solar was his usual 80-100 feet ahead.  This is our typical hiking “formation”.  Solar likes to run ahead and lie down around a corner waiting to ambush Jester, who in turn loves to rush at Solar just enough to get him moving, and then the chase is on for a few yards.  Anyway, Solar was exploring, and wandered off the road to investigate the underbrush on the side, when all of a sudden, SPROING! Solar came bounding back on to the road looking startled (which doesn’t often happen), and when I looked at the underbrush where Solar had been just moments before, there was a huge mountain lion standing there, looking just as startled as Solar.

AN ASIDE

Now, it’s at this point that I should sidetrack just a bit and tell you that Juno has no down command.  Nope, NO down command.  I can say lie down and Solar and Jester will hit the ground like stones, from any distance, but Juno just stands there looking silly.   It’s obviously not her fault; typically I don’t bother to teach my dogs a down until they’re clapping down to the ground of their own accord…they’re border collies after all….and then I just put a cue to what they’re already doing.  Solar was a bit of a late bloomer and didn’t do this till he was around 10 months old, and it was sort of a joke that you could say lie down and everybody would do so except for him.  So, I figured Juno, who has been an even later bloomer in many respects, would come around eventually and start laying down.  She’s 17 months old and this has not happened yet…once.  Sure, she flops in the house all the time, but I’m talking about a drop. Not once.  I’m not in any big rush to teach it to her; I figure she’ll do it eventually, and plus, it kind of puts a damper on the trick training if the dog offers a down and then stays there.  I figured by 18 months, a few days before her first USDAA trial, she’d learn a down.

BACK TO THE STORY

OK, so, back to the story from today.  Solar has just popped out of the brush looking a little perturbed, Jester is looking at me like, “uh, now what”, and Juno, well, who knows what she even notices.  My first instinct is to get the dogs down so nobody is moving, because I figure movement will just confuse things.  So I say lie down, and of course Jester and Solar drop like stones, with their backs to this huge mountain lion.  Talk about putting their faith in me. Juno of course does not lie down, but she seems to think something important is up, so she does what she does quite well, she comes right to me, and quick.  I grab her collar to stop her from moving, and assess.

I can’t say OK or the dogs will likely explode toward and behind me, away from the mountain lion.  I’m really not sure what mountain lion protocol is, but I’m pretty sure rapid movement is not something that will help.  So, with Juno in hand, I start backing up really slowly, keeping my eye on the mountain lion, alternately releasing Solar and Jester from their downs and putting them back down.  Once I’d backed up probably 20 feet, the mountain lion started backing up as well, and after another 10 feet of me backing up, it was gone in the brush, and I was heading back down the trail, and quick.

Talk about an amazing experience.  I feel alive and thrilled in almost the same way I felt winning Nationals, or having that really amazing STD run at Worlds last year.  I never did feel scared; it seemed as though as long as everybody followed the rules of engagement, the encounter would pass…I just had to make sure I figured out the rules.  I’m amazed that my dogs seemed so cool about the whole thing; other than Solar’s initial startle, they all seemed as though perhaps they didn’t even realize what was behind them, which is I suppose possible, as they were in a down facing me and away from the mountain lion, but surely they were aware of it or smelled it or something.  I did almost immediately start chuckling inside – I’m pretty sure nobody has ever had to bow out of being on the World Team because their dog was attacked by a mountain lion, and of course that never happened, thank goodness, but for some reason I found the situation amusing.  Amusing, astonishing, amazing, thrilling…it really made my day.

The thing that I really and truly love about agility is that for those moments on the course, I’m communicating, really communicating, with an animal of a different species.  Of course I am in pretty close contact with my dogs much of the day each day, but I’m talking about something different, when my conscious brain steps aside and lets a different, more primitive but perhaps quicker and more aware part of my brain take control, and connecting that part of my brain with the dogs on course is really something special.

Seeing that mountain lion today was an experience very similar to that.  Of course, all the thoughts I describe having above happened in an instant; they weren’t really decisions I made consciously.  That quicker, more aware, more primitive part of my brain started firing away and my conscious brain stepped aside, free to observe the situation.  And just like on course, the dogs were totally dialed in.  Not afraid or panicky, but totally dialed in to what I was doing.  That mountain lion was dialed in, too. I’m not a religious person, but I can only describe the experience as spiritual, in some sense.  Three species, encountering one another by surprise, managing to have a fairly calm exchange and encounter.

I’ve been thinking about that encounter for hours now. Not really just the encounter, but my response to it, and my dogs’ response to it.  The whole thing was just so amazing.  I have to wonder if that mountain lion spent any time thinking about the encounter once it was over. Needless to say, the time has come for Juno to learn to lie down. 🙂

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