Lately I’ve been fascinated by the behaviour of our dog, Casey, as he explores his world. For some time now, I’ve noticed that when we let him out, or when he leaves the house via his personal door, he always does the same thing – stops at the top of the steps, nose into the prevailing wind, to see what might be happening before he goes down into the garden.
This observation led me to watch more carefully, and as a result I’ve gained some knowledge about the world as he sees it. We walk much the same route twice a day, with some slight variations. We leave by the the back gate, down towards the head of the bridge, and then in a big loop on the top of the coulees before coming back the same way. It’s the same route to us every day, but it’s clearly not the same route to Casey.
Most often he can hardly contain himself at the back gate, because the two dogs Harley and Hailey are out next door. On those days, he tears along the fence, barks furiously for a moment, then remembers that he is not supposed to do that and trots back to us. He doesn’t bark as much since Hailey acquired a barking collar – an anti-barking collar, I suppose.
On other days, his behaviour is quite different. He may run hard the other way, along the fence, before returning to us. This week for two or three days in a row he ran straight ahead, up over the berm and down towards the barbed wire fence. We followed him, fearing he might run out to the tracks, but he stopped before the fence and was sniffing furiously with his best beagle sniff – fff fff fff fff fff. Did he smell something that had been there, or did he see something earlier and remembered it?
The walk continues, Casey happily trotting along until something catches his attention. It’s almost always an odor. His head will go down, and he will change direction to follow the scent. I’ve learned to interpret what happens next to some degree. If his nose stays down, he is probably on the trail of another dog. If the dog passed by recently, he will track carefully and rapidly but look up every few steps, apparently to see if he can see whatever he is following.
Some scents are left by creatures which frighten him, or are unfamiliar. In such cases, his head is up, as is the fur along the back of his neck, and his tail is straight out behind him at a 45 degree downward angle. He looks, in a word, tense and a bit concerned. He won’t follow those scents, at least not too far, but will stand for some time, nose in the air, trying to figure things out.
Birds are of great interest to him. If he scents a bird of any kind, and it’s upwind, he is gone at full speed. One day last fall he flushed a covey of partridges; from the point where he scented them to where he rousted them was about 60 metres upwind, which is quite a distance. He will act the same for other unseen and unsuspecting birds. Earlier this fall, we walked down along the river, and I noticed he was acting as described above. It took me a while to realize that he was scenting and hearing a large flock of geese on the ice on the other side of the river.
Casey’s world is a rich world – I’m convinced. It’s not the drab brown world of a Lethbridge winter that I see. It’s interlaced with meaning provided by creatures wild and tame who make it their home, or pass through. It’s a world borne on the wind, all but invisible to me. It’s not the same walk every day; there is something new and interesting to explore.
I think there may be a lesson here.