28 Aug Bush Dog
It was one of those wilderness moments I live for.
I felt my heart rate shoot up with exhilaration. And there was just the slightest tinge of fear that seems to come with all the best types of excitement.
Ten yards ahead of me Katya, our 18-month-old German Shepherd, was standing stock still, frozen, as if by a pause button on a remote control.
And 20 yards further, on the same trail, was another animal, also still, tense as a piano wire.
It was a black wolf.
I felt more than heard Kristin’s sharp intake of breath from behind me.
“Here!” I hissed at Katya.
Katya hesitated, then quickly trotted back to me. For a moment we all stood still again.
Then the wolf slowly began to move to the east, skirting us. There was no sense of lupine panic, just a measured, steady circumvention.
I try and head out into the bush every day for at least a couple of hours. I look for new wildlife trails and check on the latest animal track and sign.
Kristin comes very occasionally. But recently Katya has become my usual cohort.
I must admit, at first blush, she didn’t seem to have the makings of a bush dog.
She is slight and has long silky hair that seems genetically-engineered to pick up burrs, twigs and leaves. She also has a ridiculously long tail.
When we first headed out into the wild together she behaved like a complete hooligan, chasing grouse, squirrels and even amphibians.
The one time we came face-to-face with a black bear, she didn’t even notice it.
One afternoon I took her scrambling up a rock face a couple of miles from the ranch. She huffed and puffed and when we reached the top collapsed in a dehydrated pile, panting pathetically.
She is a long-haired Shepherd and losing body heat is not her forte. And after a long, slow winter she was a little out of shape. Maybe even a touch porky.
She has other flaws too, though perhaps they are not all her fault. When I take her wildlife tracking she has the irritating habitat of trampling all the evidence before I even arrive.
The trails around the ranch are now covered with the pitter-patter of small Shepherd prints, each about the size of a coyote track, but without any of the firmness and purpose of her wilder cousins’.
Of course her accident last year, when she was flattened by a hung-over neighbour who raced into our yard, didn’t give her the best start in life.
By the time we got back from Europe this spring – after three months in a crate recovering and four more months inside watching the snow pile up on the deck – she was pretty much delinquent.
So I began her re-education. Sit, lie down, leave. Persuading her to stay while I walked away took a little longer. Healing off leash is still a work in progress, but she’s almost there.
I don’t always take Katya when I head out – and usually not when I am guiding. Although she travels happily in all-terrain vehicles and even on the boat, there is not always space for her. And not all our guests love dogs.
But, more often than not, and especially if I am alone, she comes with me. I have learned to take into account her particular requirements.
When I took her on a four-hour walk with friends in the high alpine on a warm day we took an extra three litres of water for her and she needed almost all of it.
So now I put a pack on her and made her carry her own water. At first she rolled around furiously in an attempt to unhorse the hateful doggie pack. But eventually she got used to it.
Nor is she an especially brave dog. If I ever got into a serious scrap with a cougar or a black bear – both extremely unlikely – she would be about as much use as an armband in the Atlantic.
But, far lighter in build than Masha or Karu – our original Shepherds – she is extremely agile and can leap over fallen logs and scramble up slides that are steeper than I can manage.
She has the nose of a bloodhound, always a great asset. And, one thing I treasure about her in the bush, she is extremely quiet.
The meeting with the wolf, then, marked a milestone in Katya’s transition from doggie ornament to useful bush companion.
Her forebears might have all been show dogs and beautiful things – she comes from aristocratic lineage in canine terms – but under pressure she did exactly what she was supposed to.
She kept calm, stayed silent, and came when called. Even with a large wolf staring down at her with dinner on his mind. I was silently very proud of her.