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Dogs Have Minds of Their Own, Especially When They Are Off-Leash

I rarely feel helpless. I am usually pretty confident in my own abilities in most situations. And I don't really have many fears around my personal safety or wellbeing. I tend to move through life without much stress or anxiety, which has allowed me to experience a lot.

I've lived near rougher parts of town and been close to more shootings, stabbings, and deranged crack addicts waving knives than most people would be comfortable with. I've visited "unstable" or "unsafe" countries during the wrong times like Turkey, Nicaragua, Palestine, Egypt, etc. My general approach is to be smart wherever I go, and life has worked out well for me. I'm genuinely excited and eager to get my Pilot's license, Bungee jump, sky dive again, and swim with a shark.

There are moments I scare Corey. He tells me I need to realize my own mortality. Like when we were hiking in Grand Teton National Park and saw a beautiful grizzly bear with 4 cubs. I wanted to get closer, but he quickly shut that down. It was for the best that he convinced me to stay across the large lake and away from the young family. Especially considering that grizzly bear had to be put down 6 months later for attacking multiple campers. Truthfully, I need someone like Corey for those moments where my lack of fear could become a poor life choice or a devastating story.

As you can imagine, I don't have many moments where fear enters my mind. I can count all 4 of them.

  1. The phone call that took forever to come in when I thought I might learn I had lost my brother. (2015)

  2. Skiing in Tahoe's backcountry in the middle of a snowstorm. At the beginning of the day, I was far more confident in my skiing abilities than I should have been so I agreed to join for all the backcountry adventures with the experts who had been skiing for decades. Huge mistake. There was a moment at the edge of a cliff with steep drops all around me that I experienced what it meant to be paralyzed with fear. Oddly enough, this is the memory that was the toughest to recall. I almost forgot to include it. It never stopped me from skiing. As soon as I wrapped my head around the idea that the only way off that mountain was for me to move my ass, I was fine. I skied the rest of the day without issue and have skied every winter since. I never even think about when I think about skiing. (2016)

  3. When Bella, my brother's adorable Bernese Mountain dog, decided to play a cat and mouse game of chase with me in the middle of a busy city street. The exact moment where I felt my cortisol spike the second highest it ever has in my life (first being # 2) was when she laid her big fluffy body down across the middle of the double yellow lines like she was posing for a photoshoot... There was definitely on coming traffic... (2022)

  4. When we narrowly missed a fatal car crash, and I watched out my driver's side window as cars crunched together link accordions a mere 2 feet from my rear-view mirror. (2022)

Other things that never inspired fear, but probably should include sky diving (and heights of any kind), a man pulling a knife on Coco right in front of me, a shooting a half block away from my house in Chicago, swimming with sharks, stingrays, eels, or barracudas, and having my house broken into to name a few.

Like I said, fear doesn't come to me often and it doesn't stay long.

But on a beautiful winter day, 4 days before Christmas, I felt fear crash down on me for the 5th time in my life.

The moments where your life flashes before your eyes are one thing...but the moments where someone else's life is at risk, and you are responsible, present a different type of terror. This would be the 3rd time I experienced this particular type of fear within 18 months.

Dogs Will Be Dogs: The Day Of

Snow covers the ground, the sun is bright, and the air is perfectly crisp. It's a beautiful winter day. The perfect day to take the 3 dogs out for an off leash walk across acres of snow-covered land. I get all bundled up as I contemplate how to divide my attention 3 ways.

One of the dogs lives here so she knows the lay of the land. She is the youngest and has a crazy amount of energy. She's a 35lb Boykin Spaniel that acts like a retriever with the energy of a lab. The second dog is a slightly overweight 3-year-old Bernese Mountain dog. She's the equivalent of a linebacker. She doesn't look like she ever wants to move fast but out of nowhere speed, agility, and power explode out of her. She runs faster than the Boykin! For about 30 seconds before she needs a break. She adores people and has no interest in wandering. Plus, past experiences have showed me that I can tackle her to bring her in if she stops listening. She seems to enjoy the tackle more and more each time - I can't say I agree, but it is effective. The third dog is the most skittish. He has a rough past and was seriously abused before my brother saved him from a kill shelter in North Carolina. He's a hound mix and still very jumpy despite the consistent love and safety he's experienced for the last 6 years. He is infinitely better than he used to be. But I did not quite trust him off leash yet. My goal was to get him off-leash within the next day or so. But not today. Today he would be the one tied to my waste with a 30ft lead. That way he could play, but not get spooked and run away.

Our little pack sets out down a winding gravel road toward the back end of the property. We pass the Elk pen, 2 barns, the first pond, and a patchy wooded area without any issue. The dogs are thrilled and the walk is perfect. We make it to the other side of a patch of trees and the dogs sprint out in front of me to take advantage of the 2-3 acres of cleared land in front of us. Two of them are living their best life and I feel bad for the one tied to me. I look down at him as he prances excitedly but without actually pulling on the lead.

"Does he really need to be connected to me? He's doing so well..." As I am playing out all the possible scenarios in my head, I decide the good outweighs the potential risk. Plus, he's been fantastic and listening so well. I call him toward me to unhook him from the leash and let the pup run free with the girls. As I unlatch him, I occurs to me that it is oddly quiet. The two girls were playing and romping seconds ago making all sorts of noises, but now it is deafeningly silent.

I look up and start to scan the field. The hound is still by my side even though he is off leash, the Bernese is happily flopped upside down in previously undisturbed pile of snow exposing herself to the sky, and as I scan for the third dog...I realize I have no idea where she is. I cannot see her or hear her.

I flip around quickly, accidentally bumping the skittish hound and startling him. His reaction distracts me, and I say a silent prayer that he won't sprint off. I'm blinded by the sun flashing off the pristine white crystals covering the ground as I search for the smallest of the pack - the 9-month-old pup.

We are on a secluded property so she cannot have gone far - I looked away for 5 seconds. She is nowhere to be seen in the open field so now I start to scan the tree line that wraps the field. As my eyes flick across every new inch of dogless land, my chest starts to tighten, my eyes get wider, and I feel every muscle in my body start to tense. This is not my dog. (None of them are.) I've been entrusted to walk with her and care for her, but she does not belong to me. I push the negative thoughts out of my mind as I keep scanning.

I catch a flash of brown out of the corner of my eye and as my eyes focuses, I realize there are 8 large brown bodies moving through the trees about 50 yards behind us and ahead of the smallest brown blob. I take a few steps toward the brown bodies taking in where all of the deer are relative to the little pup who is currently crouching and inching herself slowly along the snowy ground toward the closest deer.

I make eye contact with the biggest deer as it flips its head to look at me... I've barely gone 2 steps before I see the deer take off across the tree line that borders the field. Deer are quick to move but that could not possibly have been because of my two steps. They are moving too quickly and heading straight across my line of site towards a road that I can barely see between the trees. I forgot how close that road was! Before it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere with no other people close by. Now, I feel as if we are in the heart of a populated suburb. All because of that damn road...

But why are they sprinting?

And then I see it. That tiny spec of dark brown racing faster than a bullet towards the slowest deer that is 10 times her size. One kick and the pup is dead. The deer seems to notice it is being tailed because it pivots quickly and b-lines it for the road. I call the dog's name, but she just keeps going.

Now she's starting to mimic the jumping of the deer and her little body bounces straight up in the air between lighting quick strides. She is actually closing the gap between herself and the deer.

For a moment I marvel at how beautiful she is at a full sprint! I almost forget for a second where that sprint is taking her. It was a little mesmerizing to watch. But that elegant sprint is taking her farther and farther from me and closer and closer to the road.

I call her name as loud as I can, and I hear my voice echo back at me in the deafening silence of the field. The other 2 dogs are by my side watching me. The trees and birds hear me. I am sure that every blade of grass buried underneath feet of snow could hear me. She is unphased.

I try again and get nothing. I am completely helpless.

In that moment, I realize there is nothing I can do. She is either going to change her mind and come back to me or disappear into the trees and then out onto the road.

Damn deer! Why do they always run to the road!?! I am trying to place my feelings - I want to be angry at the deer. I want to be angry at the deer who were just living their lives and doing what deer do.

I start running towards the tree line and her across the snow still calling her name. I am not sure what I think I can do given how slow I am compared to her and how far away they are. But I just know I need to try - no matter how helpless and irrational that is.

The hound keeps pace with me on his leash and the Bernese decides to hold down the fort and stay put to watch us. I am going nowhere fast, and the gap is not closing to the little dog who is desperately trying to join the pack of deer as their ninth member.

For reasons I cannot explain, I watch as the little Boykin Spaniel ahead of me, who has successfully herded a pack of deer toward a road and off her property stops and whips her head around to focus on me. I take the split-second moment and I call to her for what feels like the 100th time. My heart is pounding so loud I can barely hear past it and my eyes are trying to blink past the blind white spots from the reflective snow. Is she looking at me still?! Did that finally catch her attention?

And then I see it. I see the only site that would give me any relief at that moment. The little brown spot starts to get bigger as she runs toward me and leaves the deer and the road behind her.

Fear is a funny and unfamiliar thing. It brings clarity as the cortisol clears out all other distractions. But it also leaves you feeling exhausted. As the little dog flops at my feet for belly rubs, tears come to my eyes. I reach down to pet her and push any lingering thoughts of the terrible conversation I almost had to have with her mom. She's just so happy and unconcerned with her potentially life-threatening experience.

Now it's time to decide... do I put the 30 ft lead on her to walk back?

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