Hide and Seek: A Golden Retriever Survival Story

The main reason I have decided to write this story is because I feel it will help get it off my mind.  It has haunted me in a way, invading my thoughts before going to sleep and causing a deep sense of uneasiness.  For one who possesses a relatively healthy frame of mind on a somewhat consistent basis, the presence of recurring images of horror and desperation stands out far too boldly.  Perhaps by relating the incidents in the most realistic way possible, I will relieve myself of their onerous existence.

It was a clear day and the sun was setting behind the imposing shapes of the Cascade Mountains which border central Oregon on its west side.  At this time I usually like to go for a run with the dog and get in a good hard set of exercise before showering and sitting down to one of those great home-cooked meals.  But "clear" in central Oregon does not presuppose a warm temperature, especially in the middle of December when it has already snowed and experienced a good deal of subfreezing weather.  On this particular occasion all the snow had melted and the air was very dry but there was a definite bite in the air - cold enough to maintain a thick crust of ice on the ponds near the house.  Ice.  That word now holds a special meaning for me.  Never before did I think it would have such a large bearing upon my experience.

The dog's name is MacGregor and he and I would often play and romp while the sun went down.  I would throw tennis balls for him or anything else I could get my hands on.  He is a pure bred golden retriever and without a doubt one of the most wonderful dogs I have ever known, and I have known a lot of them.  He is the type of dog that will do anything with you, go anywhere, and always be ready to play.  He is the unusual combination of being tough and strong yet his demeanor so gentle, sweet and loving.

I invent all sorts of games with him as we go on our evening romps and this particular evening it was hide and seek.  Adjacent to the ponds which lie about 500 yards from our house, there is a winding bike trail which continues all around the property.  The day before, Mac and I had gone the whole length of the trail, me on the bike, and he dashing alongside, occasionally rolling in the tall grass but always catching up and staying with me.  But this day I was on foot and running all around this bike trail with him chasing me.  A road goes over the bike trail at one point near the ponds, and a tunnel was constructed so that whether on foot or on a bike, one can proceed through the tunnel beneath the road.  I would throw a stick or something similar for Mac and while he is streaking to fetch it, I would dash to the front of the tunnel.  Just as he turns around to see me and brings the object to me as fast as possible, I would run through the tunnel and hide on the other side.  When he comes rushing through the tunnel to find me I would have already climbed up over the road and be back to the front and dashing the opposite direction while he would be hauling around the back of the tunnel still trying to find me.  He is so unbelievably fast and also so quick to learn the tricks of the game, that it is quite rare for me to escape very far before he is beside me again.

On this afternoon which I have begun to describe, we were involved in that very game and I had managed to get him wandering in great circles on the back side of the tunnel while I was dashing along the bike trail towards the house.  He took a longer time than ordinary to figure out that I was already running back and by the time he popped out of the front of the tunnel I was well around the pond.  There were two ways he could have caught up with me:  either by sprinting along the bike trail which circumvented the pond or else by making his way in a straight line directly across the intervening ice-covered pond.  Before relating his decision, I should briefly describe the nature of this pond area for it factors in greatly to the details of the story.  It is a large area designed for a wild bird preserve and all sorts of tractors have been involved in moving great masses of dirt around its edges to form the optimum shape.  The designers wanted islands and irregular land masses to appear among the bodies of water to give it the maximum aesthetic effect.  But they had not finished their project at this time and the state of the area was quite a mess.  If the weather had been warmer it would be one huge muddy mass with great walls of dirt surrounding the water and no one would dare encroach upon the water for fear of either sinking in the mud or else sliding in the water itself.  But at this time of year, it was cold enough to not only create a thick crust of ice along the surface of the water but also to harden all of the dirt areas into huge irregular masses of dark brown. It was definitely not an area where one should play, at least not for another six months or so until they groom the area to a reasonable smoothness.

 

Mac didn't give a damn about the mud or the water or the ice but had one concern in his mind - to catch up with me on the other side of the pond and thereby conclude our wild game.  Without hesitation he decided to take the short route and ran out upon a muddy promontory which led to the icy surface of the pond.  His decision was by far the quicker method for there was a large bay which he would have had to run around if he stayed on land and that would take far too long by his standards.  By this time I was stopped on the other side of the pond and watching his every move as he began to step along the ice.  There was something about his movement along the ice that fascinated me.  It was like courting disaster for if it were me on that ice it would have cracked on the instant.  But for Mac it was a very practical medium for his immediate purpose.  He was no dummy about ice, however, and would not have ventured upon it if he did not think it was safe.  That is not to say he didn't take risks; many a time he would be chasing a stick or something along a frozen area and the ice would cave in but he was a born swimmer and he would crack his way back to land.  His coat was a double variety and I would always be amazed at how the extreme cold temperature of the water didn't affect him.  He loved it.

I stood there standing in my nice warm sweat clothes watching him scurry across this hundred yard stretch of ice and felt a sting of worry run across me.  This was a far larger body of ice-covered water than I had seen him attempt before.  Usually it was small narrow streams of ice which he courted and if he happened to fall in I would always be close enough on land to nab him should he not be able to paw or bite his way through the ice to safety.  The size of this pond scared me.  I was momentarily reassured by his confidence in crossing it because he was moving across it more quickly than his good judgment normally allowed.  Then his rapid forward movement suddenly came to a halt about fifteen feet from the muddy cliffed edge of the pond.  His sudden stop compelled me to run to the top of the cliff and I felt bewildered by his action.  He stood absolutely still and I knew he felt something was wrong.  I knew how badly he wanted to make it to where I stood yet he stopped stone still.  His face was toward me and his expressive eyes seemed to show great concern.  Then I heard the horrible, grating, cracking sound of the ice beneath him and his head swirled around as he watched the water gradually seep around his paws.  With one final staccato of snapping ice, he plunged straight down until only his head and flailing paws could be seen.

Now this very scene has happened in the course of our playing probably a dozen times, but for some reason I felt this was different.  The ice was too thick.  There was no way for him to crack the ice surrounding him with his paws or his teeth and break through to shore.  I stood above the six foot cliff which overlooked the round hole of water where he was trapped.  He would place his powerful two front paws on the ice edge before him like so many times before, but it would not give.  He would try the same action all around the hole but none of the edges would even crack.  He had fallen into some kind of freak spot in the ice and he soon recognized his dangerous dilemma and started to let out long high whimpers.  His next course was to try to place those paws on the edge and pull himself up but the anatomy of a dog is such that it is a virtually impossible trick.

All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head.  I remembered the story of a dog drowning due to the exact same situation.  I thought of all the times I had seen Mac on top of ice and wondering what I would do if he should helplessly fall in and only be able to survive through my assistance.  I thought of tugging him with a long branch which he would clamp onto with his teeth but there were only bare hills of dirt around the pond.  His desperate paddling and whimpering drove me crazy and, as he was watching me, I could feel him pleading for help.  I had to crack the ice in such a way to enable him to swim out.  The hills of dirt were encrusted with large irregular pieces of lava rock which I fished out with my hands.  The first one I heaved down and it made a hole but not a long crack which Mac could break through.  The next one I threw closer to him but it didn't penetrate and bounced to the edge of his icy hole.  I couldn't believe how hard the ice was and I desperately scratched the dirt for another rock to split the ice.  I was shocked to discover after turning around that Mac had grabbed the huge lava rock in his mouth.  He must have thought we were still playing games - his pure retriever breeding coming to the fore, he had this huge rock in his mouth, far too heavy to carry and the extra weight lowered his golden body further towards a very icy death.  I screamed at him to drop it but that was probably the last thing in his mind.  Only his most basic instincts were controlling him now.  He knew only to retrieve and would die in his attempt to do so.

The desperation of it all made me wild.  I threw mud at him hoping it would make him drop the rock and float longer in his attempt to fight the ice.  I screamed over and over but to no avail.  Finally, he began really sinking and flailing at the water with his paws, only his mouth and eyes and the rock above water.  I couldn't believe all of this happening right near our warm cozy house in an area which is usually reserved for casual walks and gazing upon the sky and country in peaceful reflection.  At that moment all was wild and horrible.  I knew I had to go in after him.  So many times I had thought about this but it was really happening now.  There was no time for deliberation or wise plans of rescue - he was sinking.  On an instant I remembered the horrible report that humans could not enter water of such a terribly cold temperature for it would cause the heart to stop.  Here I was in the physical prime of life, an excellent swimmer, yet confronted with a seemingly invincible aquatic situation.  Thoughts of people falling off of canoes in an icy stream and rendered utterly helpless would enter my mind.  I envisioned Mac and I disappearing beneath the ice never to be found until the next spring when the ice would finally melt.  So horrible and only 500 yards to our warm home and family.  I was in a frenzy but all of a sudden everything became so clear.  It was Mac himself that made me come to my senses.  He was far more than just a dog sinking in the ice.  He represented so much of true life with all his vivacity and love of play.  He had a character which far surpassed most people and stood for all the qualities which make life worth living.  To me, he was life itself and never more so than at that moment.  I felt myself going down with him and I couldn't let it happen.  All thought stopped and I moved into action.  I slid down the muddy surface of the cliff and landed on the edge of the pond, breaking its edge with a loud shotgun crack.  The ice was a lot thicker than I had imagined.  Stepping deeper and deeper into the freezing water, I broke the surface with my hands and made my way slowly to Mac's hellish place.  Cursing, I tore the lava rock out of his mouth and he rose up high enough in the water for me to grab his collar and heave him up over the hole's edge on his way to the shore.  At that moment I felt something weak inside me.  I was up to my shoulders in the water which had hundreds of pieces of ice floating on it and I could feel my heart miss.  There was nothing painful but just a feeling of extreme and desperate vulnerability.  I was able to back my way out of the water and scratched up the surface of the muddy cliff.  I only wanted to get back to a hot shower and ran on the bike trail home with Mac running and prancing about me.

Canicross: An Easier Way to Run With Your Dog

Chances are you’ve never heard of canicross -- but if you want to run with your dog, it just might be the sport for you. Although popular in Europe, it’s less well-known in North America. Canicross -- for “canine” and “cross-country” -- is the sport of running or walking behind a dog in harness. Dog-powered sports enthusiasts, such as mushers and skijorers (skiers pulled by dogs), canicross when there’s no snow to keep man and beast fit.

Now, runners, hikers and dog lovers are discovering the sport, which offers fun and health benefits for you and your dog. In canicross, your dog is harnessed with a line attached to your waist. Your dog then pulls you along, adding distance to your stride when you run -- and assistance on the uphill stretches. Here’s a clip of the sport from the U.K. group The Kennel Club:

Canicross Isn’t Just for Huskies

Canicross harnesses a dog’s tendency to pull and puts it to good use. “Most northern breeds are naturals because it’s bred into them,” says Catherine Benson of Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC. “But any dog whose adult weight is over 30 pounds, who has a desire to pull, and who is in decent physical condition with no joint or bone issues can be a good partner.”

Long-distance runners need a high-energy, fast-paced dog, whereas walkers and hikers do better with a strong but slower dog that won’t pull them off their feet.

Equipment and Training

Canicrossers use specialized gear. You can’t just attach a leash to your dog’s collar and off you go. You’ll need pulling harnesses, shock-absorbing lines, belts and related items. The best way to find these and to learn about the finer points of equipment is to contact a sled dog or canicross club in your area. These dog-power devotees will be happy to show you the ropes, so to speak. Dog adventure businesses also offer classes and clinics.

Pull training is a progressive process. “Let your dog get used to wearing the harness and lines when he’s young so it becomes second nature,” says Linda Newman of Points Unknown, a dog adventure business in Minnesota. “Teach him commands for “Go” (“Line out” or “Tighten up”), “Stop,” “Right” (“Gee”), and “Left” (“Ha” or “Haw”). Any commands are OK as long as you’re consistent. Reward him for pulling in harness, never on a leash. Dogs are smart, they know the difference.”

Train a puppy in short sessions a few times per week, ramping up the frequency and duration as your dog matures. Check with your veterinarian when it comes to building endurance in your dog, as your dog’s stamina can depend on his age, his current condition, where you train and many other factors. Your dog is likely to build endurance more quickly if he’s already accustomed to jogging with you.

Dogs learn to love canicross and might pull to the point of exhaustion, so it’s up to you to not overdo it. Labored breathing, occasional stumbling and an unwillingness to keep pace are signs your dog is fatigued.

You can train in any weather, but dogs don’t offload heat as well as people do. Benson uses the “Rule of 100.” She explains, “If the combined temperature and humidity are 100 to 120 F, either don’t train or give your dog lots of breaks, including swim breaks, and have plenty of drinking water available.” Excessive panting and rapid breathing are indications of heat exhaustion.

Improved Fitness for You and Your Dog

Canicross is ideal for exercise fanatics. The health benefits include stronger muscles and improved endurance for you and your dog -- although he’ll think it’s just plain fun! Plus, the exercise and training help alleviate boredom and improve the bond between you and your canine companion. Best of all, canicross can tone you and your dog at any pace, almost any place, and any time you want to “line out,” as the canicrossers say.

Photo: Akna/WikimediaCommons

The Right Diet for Your Athletic Dog

Huskies training for the Iditarod are big eaters, consuming a whopping 10,000 calories a day. And no wonder: The dog teams propel themselves 1,151 miles from Anchorage to Nome in subzero conditions over tundra, through mountain passes and across rivers -- often in whiteouts. Mushers know that without the right nutrition, the dogs don’t have the stamina to do well in the race.

Even if your dog never braves the wilds of Alaska, he still might require what is known in the dog-sporting industry as a performance food. If your athletic dog exercises regularly, he burns a lot of calories, so it’s important to adjust his nutritional intake accordingly so he is getting the proper diet.

Feeding an Athletic Dog
Performance dogs need a nutrient-dense food -- they simply can’t eat the volume necessary to fulfill their caloric needs. And your dog also must consume the food in small portions. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down Thanksgiving dinner right before running a marathon.

“Feeding calorically dense food is key to maintaining optimal body weight for dogs participating in endurance exercise,” explains Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn., and a regular expert blogger for Exceptional Canine.

Dogs that compete in sporting competitions regularly or are even just weekend warriors require extra protein, carbohydrates and fat -- and it’s essential that food is easy to digest. Your dog shouldn’t quickly process a food that requires a lot of effort to digest; he won’t be able to absorb the nutrients he’s eating.

“A low-residue, low-fiber dog food is easier to digest and means less bulk lingering in the digestive system,” says Dewhirst.

Performance diets should take these needs into consideration. Look for these ingredients in a food made for athletic dogs:

  • High-quality, animal-based protein. Chicken, fish and lamb provide essential amino acids to build muscle, repair tissue and synthesize hormones.
  • Quick-energy carbohydrates. Your dog’s body will efficiently process finely ground cornmeal, barley and grain sorghum.
  • High-quality fat. “Fat” is not a bad word when it comes to keeping an athletic dog healthy. Look for chicken and fish fat sources in your dog’s food; these fats are sources of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which offer many health benefits. Fat is a more efficient energy source for dogs, explains Dewhirst, so a high-performance dog needs food with a higher fat content.
  • Fermentable fiber. A fermentable fiber, like beet pulp, helps your dog efficiently absorb nutrients and keeps his digestive system working smoothly.

Know When to Feed Your Dog Performance Food
Understanding when your dog needs a high-performance food is central to his good health and success in whatever physical feat you’re working to accomplish. Experts recommend introducing a performance diet eight weeks prior to an event that would demand a lot of your dog. Gradually mix in performance food with your dog’s usual food over a three-day period to avoid upsetting his stomach.

If your dog exercises regularly -- either jogging with you or herding sheep year-round --there’s no reason to ever stop feeding him a performance food. But a dog that isn’t exercising doesn’t need as many calories. For instance, sled dogs only need about 800 calories a day when they’re relaxing in their kennels in the summer. If you feed a high-performance food to a sedentary dog, it’s a recipe for weight gain.

Dewhirst recommends asking your veterinarian to formulate a proper calorie count for your dog based on his metabolic energy requirement. Watch for weight loss or poor performance in your athletic dog, says Dewhirst. “Both are signs of a deficient diet,” she advises.

Feeding your athletic dog well is just as important as teaching him about the work he’ll do. If you prepare his body properly, he’ll be able to reach the goals you set -- whether that means finishing a 5K or racing the Iditarod.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/njmcc

Team up With Your Dog for Flyball Fun

It’s the equivalent of drag racing -- but for dogs -- so no wonder the action-packed team sport of flyball is gaining plenty of new players and fans.

“Flyball is the extreme sport of the canine world, requiring skill, athleticism, balance and plain old guts on the part of both dog and handler,” says Glenn Hamilton of Some Ruff Competition in Ontario. It’s Hamilton who refers to the activity as drag racing for dogs.

Are you and your dog up to the challenge? Be aware: Flyball is highly addictive; once you and your dog participate, you’ll never look back.

What Is Flyball?
Flyball is among the fastest-growing dog sports in North America, according to Brett Williams of The United Flyball League International. This canine relay race features teams of four dogs and four handlers competing head-to-head with other teams to complete the flyball course in as little time as possible, says Williams.

“Each dog covers a total distance of 102 feet on the course and has to negotiate eight hurdles,” explains Williams. “After jumping the first four hurdles, the dog must trigger, release and catch a ball from a spring-loaded box. The dog must then carry the ball back over the four original hurdles.” After the first dog completes the course, the other dogs take their turns. Check out the video to see a competition in action.

Lead dogs have been clocked at up to an incredible 20 miles per hour. The canine players are so fast that an electronic sensor system is usually used to start the dogs and to judge their passes. Some dogs can complete the course in just 3.7 seconds, with entire teams zipping through at just more than 15 seconds.

Flyball Training and Strategy
Leerie Jenkins, chair of the board of directors of the North American Flyball Association, first became involved in the sport in the late 1990s. “I joined a dog club, looking for activities I could do with my first dog, a Border Collie named Bella,” he says. “That dog club was mainly a disc dog club, and we decided to try this sport called flyball. So we bought a book on training flyball and never looked back.”

He adds, “It’s addictive and a lot of fun. The dogs absolutely go crazy over flyball.”

Training consists of going to classes, team practices, and/or training at home. Seminars are also available. “You need to build a good working relationship with your dog and also have them love to work for you,” says Jenkins. “They need to learn how to come to you when called, even when there are distractions.”

Dogs need to be speedy, but not too eager. If a dog takes its turn too soon, the dog is fouled and must rerun, most likely spoiling the team’s chance for a win.

Who Can Participate?
“Flyball is a very inclusive dog sport,” says Jenkins. Here are the requirements:

  • Flyball dogs must be at least 1 year old.
  • Your dog must be physically able to safely compete. Have your pet checked out by a veterinarian first.
  • Your dog should get along well with other dogs.
  • Border Collies and Jack Russell Terriers tend to ace flyball -- but all breeds and breed mixes are welcome!
  • Small dogs are part of the game’s strategy. Hamilton explains that since each team’s hurdle heights are dependent on the height of their shortest racer, teams usually include a smaller dog to reduce the hurdle height.
  • Senior dogs can play too. Jenkins explains that a veterans’ class for dogs over the age of 7 has “less strenuous requirements, so the older dogs can enjoy playing too.”
  • Keep in mind that human participants must be in good shape, given flyball’s fast-paced action.

Interested?

Check out a flyball competition first to see what you think. Guests are always welcome. Jenkins suggests that you “talk to people, observe, and sign up for a class or practices.”

Check out the NAFA Flyball Locator Board online to find a club near you.