Monday, May 3, 2021

Running Wild

An hour after she ran wild in the streets of Mukilteo, my dog served as a flower girl in a wedding.

Last Friday afternoon, my dog and I went for a walk.

Strolling along in the sunshine, I admired Gracie's lovely off-leash behavior. It's been about a month now that I've been letting her stroll along on her own recognizance, snapping the leash on to cross busy streets or when we encounter other walkers along the way, but otherwise letting her roam free, and I'm shocked and delighted to say that she's been a model of good behavior. She comes rushing back to me whenever I call her, or obediently stands in place when I command her to "wait," and always, always stays on the sidewalk. This exercise in me learning to trust her - and her earning that trust with perfect manners - has been a huge success.

So as we strolled along a sidewalk back behind the high school, I felt comfortable allowing my pup to run along the opposite side of the small lane, sniffing through the shrubbery tucked here and there between the lane and the big parking lot on the far side of the plantings. Little birds often hop around under those bushes, and Gracie often directs her hunting instincts to carefully investigating those areas. And on this particular day, she found one that interested her quite a bit.

Here's what that looks like:

Dog freezes in place.

Ears up

Tail up at a slight angle, feathery fur waving in the soft breeze.

Eyes riveted on an invisible (to me) target. 

Slowly, ever so carefully, Gracie begins to inch deeper into the bushes, her posture indicating a growing passion for whatever she has spied inside.

Just kidding. There was no wedding. 

Now, as soon as I deduced that my dog was on to something big. I considered calling her back to the sidewalk. But I do love to see her in full-on hunting mode, so I decided to play this adventure out. I crossed the lane myself, and stood a few feet behind her, as a good hunter should, taking care to stay downwind of whatever it was she had found.

Long seconds ticked by. 

Gracie's body quietly quivered as she continued to set her prey.

And then, in an instant, all hell broke loose.

I heard a flutter.

At the same instant, Gracie crashed to the deepest part of the bushes

Out squawked a mother mallard who, once clear of the bushes, took to her wings and fluttered off.

To my horror, Gracie followed in hot pursuit.

Under no circumstances is a proper setter supposed to run after its prey. But apparently Gracie has not read that chapter of the manual just yet. 

I hollered to her, "Gracie! C'mon girl!"

My darling obedient dog didn't even blink at the sound of her name. Like a laser-focused lunatic, she continued her full-speed assault on the duck.

And I can't exactly blame her, because that lady duck knew just what she was doing. At first, I thought she must be injured because she wasn't gaining much altitude, and seemed to be limping along at a rather slow pace. But as I watched her flap down the lane toward the busy street, with Gracie in blind pursuit, I understood.

That clever mama was drifting along, intentionally positioning herself right in front of my dog's adrenaline-crazed eyeballs, staying close enough to keep teasing the big red beast along in the chase, and leading said intruder directly away from her nest and the fragile eggs undoubtedly laid inside.

In the same instant that I understood the power play that was unfolding before me, I recoiled in horror. Momma Mallard's master plan was lacking just one important ingredient: traffic safety. In her determined effort to keep my dog away from her nest, she was leading them both - bird and dog - directly into the busy street ahead. 

I watched in disbelief as the two crossed the last bit of lawn and launched out into four lanes of traffic, turned left up the center of the street, and disappeared from my sight. 

Good lord. What a nightmare.

What could I do? Certainly not catch them. I hustled up the sidewalk, craning my neck to see around the bulk of the high school building, keeping an ear turned toward any sounds of slamming brakes or screeching horns that would signal disaster. I was prepared for anything.

As I was almost clear of the building, calling my dog's name now and again, I noticed a pair of women and the most adorable St. Bernard puppy walking along the busy street, coming from the direction in which my dog had run. They looked back behind them, and then up at me, and I could see them putting two and two together in their brains.

"She's coming!" one of them called to me, and in the next second, I stepped out from behind the building and was finally afforded a sweeping view up the street. 

Easily a hundred meters away, I spied a red blur. 

Closer and closer she came, on a direct bee line to me, skimming across the high school lawn.

Her red coat gleamed in the late afternoon sun, her pink tongue lolled joyfully, and as she came closer, I saw her eyes riveted on me, never glancing away.

Gracie ran right up to me and slammed on the brakes. Precisely, she sat down in front of me, and accepted my praise.

Good girl, Gracie. You came back!

And then, with my faithful pup trotting safely at my side, I comforted myself. Maybe Gracie chased that duck along the sidewalk of the busy street, or even along the wide sweep of school lawn, rather than actually running in the street. I would never know for sure, but I decided to give my dog the benefit of the doubt and believe that she found at least that measure of self-control, even in the thrill of the chase.

Just a ton of pink petals on the ground and a good girl who is willing to let us pile them on her head and sprinkle them elegantly down her back, and then take eighty-five photos of the finished effect. 

Since that adventure, I've kept a close eye on my girl. Yes, I do still let her walk off leash, but I'm highly tuned in to any intense hunting vibes and ready to snap the leash on at a moment's notice. Until the spring nesting season has wrapped up and the next generation of baby ducks have safely taken to the air, I will be extra careful.

Today, for example, as we approached the aforementioned duck's lair, I noted that my dog was placidly strolling along the sidewalk on her very best behavior. But just as she pulled up even with the shrubbery of interest, she dashed across the lane and waded deep into the bushes. I was ready for this tricky maneuver: right on my dog's heels, I dashed across the lane, promptly hauled my darling out of the greenery, and snapped the leash on. Satisfied that she'd done her best, Gracie graciously heeled and happily marched alongside of me back to the sidewalk and down to the busy street. 

And there, in a wild instance of synchronicity and mind-blowing coincidence, in the exact place I'd seen them on Friday were once again the two women and the St. Bernard puppy.  

"No ducks today?" one of them playfully called to me.

"Well, no. But not for lack of trying," I countered. 

We all laughed. 

And then I thought to ask, "Say, the other day, was she running in the street or along the sidewalk and grass?"

"Oh, she ran across the street at least twice, with that duck right in front of her."

Shoot. My heart sank to hear this confirmation of my dog's out-of-control behavior.

"But wow," my newfound friend continued, "she was so beautiful. She was running so fast, so smooth, and her long hair was rippling like water. She was quite a sight to see." 

I smiled. I could just imagine that glorious sight.

My beautiful flower child. 

That vision led me back to the very conundrum I've faced for thirty-five years of living with setters in the suburbs. I do my very best to leash them and train them and pray that they obey, but there will always be moments when my Irish Setters' hunting instincts overwhelm their good senses and they simply run wild. 

And while that is dangerous in a hundred different ways, there's also a deep and powerful beauty unleashed when my darling dog runs wild. 

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