To me, off-leash hiking used to be full of what ifs. There were the “normal” ones, like what if my dog runs off after a deer and doesn’t come back? What if he gets hurt? What if we run into a coyote? A bobcat? A mountain lion? What if something happens to him while I’m not there? What if? What if? What if? And these weren’t completely unwarranted. My older dog had run off after a deer and he had gone missing for around 3 hours.
And on top of that, there were the even scarier ones. My baby Oz has A LOT of feelings. A. LOT. Fueled by less than ideal experiences and his own genetics, those big feelings have grown to sometimes be directed at other dogs as well as often affecting his general demeanor, literal resting body posture, and feelings about pretty much life in general. So a secondary list of what ifs were born. What if we run into an off-leash dog? What if Oz doesn’t like that off-leash dog? What if a fight breaks out? What if Oz gets hurt? What if someone prejudges him because he’s in a muzzle and does something to him? And as much as I’d not like to admit it, what if people judge me for my dog’s behavior?
Now Oz has never actually been in a real dog fight, he’s never bitten anyone, but his anxiety is real and his worries can be BIG.
Enter two amazing humans (you know who you are) and a wonderful thing I had never thought of using, a muzzle. And despite all my what ifs, my own worries, I unclipped the leash and off we went. And now off-leash hiking is our favorite thing to do. It’s how we function every day.
Not to say it was easy to just unclip the leash and be care free. The first time my GPS handheld clocked Oz as going beyond 100 yards was terrifying. The first time he disappeared after a deer, I held my breath. It took some amazing friends/trainers and some courage, some serious trust. And it’s paid off.
We still wear our muzzle, probably more for me than him. And despite the long list of notions out there, to us it stands for something else. To us it stands for freedom, it stands for a little slice of happy. The muzzle didn’t change anything per say, didn’t change Oz’s behavior. But it did change MINE. It enabled me to allow interactions with other dogs, to step back and let him talk. And it was only after that, I began to see his behavior begin to change and his confidence begin to grow (both on and off leash).
I’m not saying our freedom, our slice of happy is always perfect (because what is?) but most of it has been pretty damn wonderful. The number of times Oz has met a dog so nicely, so full of optimism, the amount of times that Oz has come back from an adventure or animal chase all on his own without a single recall, the amount of times that we’ve run into dogs on leash and been able to easily recall off of them, have no reactions to them, the amount of times Oz has been able to send off such nice signals that people haven’t even noticed his muzzle, the amount of times he’s been given the opportunity to TALK to other dogs and did pretty damn well with it, have all grown too many to count. The amount of times that things have gone RIGHT drown out the handful of times it hasn’t.
The anxiety’s still there, but it’s smaller. And those what ifs are still there. But for the most part, we’ve spun them around. We look forward to them now. We look forward to running into a deer or that off-leash dog, in fact we even seek them out sometimes. We look forward to Oz going on his 100yd - 1/2mi solo adventures (with a GPS collar of course 😜). My biggest worries have become some of our biggest joys. And we find peace in it. It helps heal us. Together, we are our bravest in the woods. We are our happiest in the woods. We are our ourselves in the woods. We are one, we are a true team, we are true trust, we are pure love.