Bend your knees. That’s the advice that my friend Angela and I share as three black shapes race past us in rapid succession and at incredible speed. We turn in unison and marvel as our dogs execute a sharp right turn and scramble up the moss covered rocks leaving debris flying in their wake. A typical play date up here on the hill.
We have 5 acres of beautiful wooded property here on Vancouver Island. Unfortunately we are on the crown of a hill and much of that land lies below us down a steep slope. It’s easy enough to get to but that part of our property is off limits to our dogs without supervision. We are blessed with lots of wildlife here. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, and other small animals abound. Unfortunately, so too do cougars and bears. Of late, a black bear has taken up temporary residence and so we have to keep the dogs close.
Conquering the hill
A small portion around the house has been fenced for regular use. Then there is a smallish strip of flat ground behind the dog pen and it is bordered on one side by a steep drop down to the rest of our property, on the other by the large rocky crown of our hill. Since our dogs cannot run freely on all 5 acres of our property, when we do leave the penned area, they amuse themselves with a wonderful game of scrambling up and down, over and around our rocky hill. It is a game that all of our dogs have enjoyed to one degree or another over the 13 years we have lived here.
Watching our dogs has been fascinating. From the incredible agility they show in clambering up almost vertical faces to their ability to turn at full speed and not fall off the uneven rocks, our dogs give us a glimpse into the physical capabilities of modern dogs. What is perhaps even more incredible is watching them play together. The speed and precision of their actions and reactions to each other is truly remarkable.
On this particular day, our two Belgians Shepherds, Tiramisu and Rizzo have a guest. Castle belongs to our friend Angela and he has been a frequent playmate for our dogs since he was a pup. From the instant we open the back gate, the “three amigos” take off at full speed seemingly unwilling to let the other dogs get out ahead of them. But fairly quickly they run out of real estate and everyone needs to turn around in a very small space.
It should look like a train wreck of black fur, teeth, and legs. Instead there are some grunts, growls, excited barks and a ballet of dogs expertly manoeuvring a sequence of near-misses. In a flash they are heading back at us once again at full speed. Bend your knees. If they hit you, you want to be able to absorb the impact.
Another expert high speed turn and the three of them are up the side of the hill, moss flying out behind them. It is beautiful and joyful and great fun to watch. But there was a time when this kind of sight would have made us very nervous. What if one of them fell? What if one of the dogs attacked the other? What if they should collide? Is it possible that someone will be hurt by crashing accidentally into an exposed tooth or leg?
Play at the speed of dogs
Many years ago my wife and I attended a dog training seminar where we were shown slow motion of two dogs “fighting” with each other. Viewed in real-time, the altercation looked fierce, angry, and incredibly dangerous. But once slowed down and analysed, it became clear that the just-miss bites and forceful body slams were all precisely choreographed by the two dogs and were not intended to cause injury at all! A confrontation that looked to our human eyes like something that would result in blood was, in dog-time, a simple argument. A spirited discussion between two dogs who knew how to do this dance better than any human could possibly understand.
It was an eye-opening experience for us. Dogs have their ways of interacting whether or not we humans can understand it or even see it clearly. We have learned from further reading that dogs both think and see faster than human beings do. Biologically they move in a different time frame than we do as far as their senses are concerned.
And so watching these three black dogs racing over moss covered rocks and careening down the slope to the grass below is much less worrying for us than it might have been. We understand that they know what they are doing. We may not be able to imagine it or see it they way they do, but they seem to manage it just fine. They are playing at the speed of dogs. No need for us to insert our all too human opinions on things.
There are also personalities involved here. Castle is the youngest and the most rambunctious. Rizzo is the middle dog, a year older than Castle. Rizzo and Castle have been play buddies for a long time and, both being boys, they like to rough-house a fair bit. There is a lot of crashing together, playful mouthing and grabbing, and of course the chase-me game.
Tira is the older dog. She is nearly 10 and she has definite opinions on these silly young boys and their games. As the younger dogs bound and crash along, Tira runs beside barking excitedly. We can’t be sure if she is trying to protect her “brother” Rizzo or just can’t help being the fun police bent on keeping all these shenanigans to a minimum. But she is right there in the thick of it, barking and snapping and running with the boys.
For all the teeth and noise, these three dogs all love being together. After a few minutes of intense play, there is a lull with some sniffing, meandering, and eating grass. Before long, someone swats someone’s rear end with a paw and the game is on again. But all three of them are remarkably tolerant of the others. Even Tira shows great patience by allowing the boys to come over for a sniff or to munch a bit of grass right next to her.
Watch and learn
There was a time many years ago when we would have tried to structure the play of our dogs. We would micromanage and direct. There was a lot of “No!” and “Come HERE!” to stop what we thought was rough play. It turns out that it doesn’t need to be that complicated. Dogs, it seems, will either get along or they won’t. And that can be both a blessing and a curse.
By human standards, the interactions of dogs happen FAST! In fact, they happen too fast for us to react to most of the time. The same speed and precision with which our dogs miss each other in their high spirited play could be used to inflict terrible damage by a dog intent on harming another dog. For us, this only reinforces the importance of carefully introducing dogs in as safe a manner as possible. We don’t just turn our dogs loose at the dog park. We set up play dates with dogs we know they get along well with.
It turns out that dogs are pretty agreeable creatures. Most of the time dogs are amicable to other dogs and are just happy to see one another. But if there is something worth fighting over, food or some other “bone of contention”, things can get heated. A bad history with other dogs can also play a role especially if the dog has been attacked or bullied. Statistically speaking however, chances are most dogs will meet without incident.
We love watching our dogs play. And we have learned a great deal from watching them interact. There seems to be a unique culture and etiquette to our dogs’ interactions among their own kind. We take our role as their guardians very seriously. Our three dogs play so well together because they all feel safe. They all have had a chance to get to know each other. And they all know that we are nearby if they really need us.
I can’t think of a nicer way to spend an hour or two on cool and clear fall evening than watching our dogs on the hill.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –
All photos – Angela Norton & Petra Wingate 2013