There’s nothing like watching a dog let loose in open nature. They live for this experience. It supercharges their vitality. Leaping, chasing, sniffing, racing…the whole nine yards. I often find I live for these same freedoms and experiences after spending so much time inside.
I’ve also observed my dogs in poignant moments outside as well. One time my husky came nose to nose with a coyote and it looked like she was standing in front of a mirror. While it could have ended in an altercation, the coyote trotted off after a good sniff of my dog.
Yes, a few times in my past as a dog owner, in letting my dogs off leash, I’ve walked the edge of (ir)responsibility. For me, it is the responsibility of the dog owner to get their dogs outside and moving, to make other people feel comfortable with a dog’s behaviour, and to ensure dogs impart as little impact on the Earth as possible.
But what of carving out restorative experiences with our dogs? I do believe one could go so far as to say there’s a case to finding a ‘triangle of golden, connected experience’ out of doors; human, dog, nature.
I’m here to share the ‘how to’ of getting ‘two mangoes with one stone.’ The mangoes? A great, responsible off-leash dog experience, while getting bathed with all the medicines nature has to offer.
First, what are the impacts/awarenesses of dogs (medium to large sized) being off leash and how can we mitigate them?
If you are a new dog owner, or the common rules and courtesies have gone in one dog owner ear and out the other, here they are in a nutshell:
- Mostly keep your dogs on-leash
- If off leash…see below
- Make other walkers no less comfortable on their walk because of your dog
- Doo clean up after your dog
I say mostly because I find that walking a dog on leash feels like I’m both cheating my dogs out of so much joy, while being confined myself. But, as a guy with a fair bit of training in ecology, conservation, and dog-owning, I can honestly say it is really important to keep dogs on leash most of the time and in most natural areas.
Dogs often spread seeds of plants, and many of these plants are invasive species. This is hugely detrimental to the ecosystem our few remaining natural areas.
More dramatically observed, is the killer instinct and ensuing action. Dogs end life to a whole range of furry, feathered and scaly friends in an instant. I’m sure you’ve heard of or witnessed squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, snakes and other unsuspecting animals eliminated by the quick and lethal action of a dog. While one might not like some of these species, their habitats have diminished; dogs are one more unnecessary pressure.
I once lived on a remote island in a cabin off the grid for over a decade. Having my dog off leash in nature was the norm. Once, when rounding the corner of a forest that opened into a meadow, a few Wild Turkey hens were escorting dozens of their chicken-sized poults (young). In an instant, my husky leaped high into the air, catching a young bird. By the time she came back to the ground, the bird was dead. It really showed me how quickly dogs can kill a wild animal.
Dogs can also shock dog-less walkers or walkers with dogs on leash. Even worse, some relatively agreeable dogs decide some stranger needs to be aggressively barked at right in their personal space.
Dogs can also defecate in areas we don’t see. Talk about damaging the natural experience of another person…stepping in somebody’s disregarded dog waste. When other humans see discarded bags of dog doo or piles along a trail, studies show that this is a good enough reason for someone else to do the same – it creates a chain reaction of littering.
Your dog can also get harmed by nature. Many owners have lost an unsuspecting dog through thin ice or have had ‘Charlie’ come whimpering home with a muzzle full of
porcupine quills. Further, and this isn’t to fear monger, a few isolated incidents with coyotes have resulted in injured or killed pets. This doesn’t need to be overplayed. Coyotes are natural. While they are moving closer towards and often into parts of cities, they still represent much less of a risk to your dog than other dogs, thorns, tics and many other potential hazards.
Most of the above can be abated by having a well trained dog. Of course, you don’t need to be a dog whisperer to achieve this. Consistency, becoming your dog’s alpha, and a little bit of knowledge on how dogs think and respond go a long way. One key thing that is so easy to do, is play. Dogs really respect and listen much better when you engage them in joyful, creative and repetitive play. How great is that?! And, if all you know how to do is play, then hire a trainer for a few sessions to set you and your dog on course to an obedient, loving and respectful relationship.
Ready to experience low-impact nature experiences with your dog? Find an off leash park in your area, or a rural friend or owner of a rural dog retreat. Areas of semi-natural habitats exist in these places where dogs can rejoin some of their natural instincts (nature reserves are best left for wild animals).
Want to take the experience deeper? Practice deep breathing, presence and mindfulness with your dog in nature. There are many courses and recordings that you can do or purchase if this is new to you. It’s extremely refreshing and if you’re really connected to your dog, your animal will pick up on your heightened state/ relaxed mood. I like to do this at an off-leash, fenced in park not far from my house.
Some have taken it further with the discovery of Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing/Therapy in North America and beyond. Forest Therapy walks are usually between two and three hours long and cost anywhere between $30 and $60. These walks involve deliberate and slow invitations that encourage participants to breath deeply, connect to the earth, slow down their minds, and take in nature with their senses. These walks are mostly silent.
Joan Robinson – Forest Therapy Guide in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Joan permits participants to join walks with their dogs in tow.
Some guides, like for example, Joan Robinson in Thunder Bay, Ontario, lead Forest Therapy walks where bringing your dog along is an option. Joan has had good results. As a Forest Therapy Guide myself, I haven’t had anyone bring a dog along, but one time a woman and I discussed the pros and cons of her bringing along her young baby on the walk. We decided to go ahead with it. The baby added huge value to the experience in spite of a few outbursts of sound and cries. This experience, coupled with that of Joan’s, have lead me to plan a series of walks in my city for dog owners.
Like children, dogs really do follow our lead. Since they are our dependents, it is much better to find ways to include them into the wide breadth of experience of our daily lives. Practices like mindfulness and Forest Therapy are ways to experience the healing powers of nature, get a little exercise and fresh air, while entering into ways of being that calm us by slowing down the pace of our lives.
To find a Forest Therapy Guide in your area (who may allow you to bring your dog along), check out this link showing the locations of guides across the globe. In addition to trying a new, fascinating and highly meaningful way to walk in the woods, becoming a Forest Therapy Guide might even be a possibility for you.