As you may know Hagrid our English Mastiff has a few health issues and his condition can place limitations on him and us. I am often looking for ways to give him simple pleasures when he goes out for his short walks. His walks at the moment are for half an hour, give or take a little, but that includes several periods of sitting down, sniffing sessions and ambling slowly around in between times as he tries to make sense of the environment.
There are two or three walks we can do from the house but to reach a worthwhile destination takes up a good ten minutes so, by the time we reach the most enriching places, he’s tired and we have to turn back and go home. There are scents along the way but much of the route is along paths and pavements. Having a mastiff on narrow thoroughfares makes it hard to gain space when passing people and dogs. It’s always far too close a meeting for him and them so we tend to go at quiet times of the day or do these walks when the weather permits us to, which means when it’s raining and most sensible people and dogs are indoors. This limits the chance of having to pass others when space is restricted. We still do meet people and dogs occasionally but I can see that most of the dogs find it hard having to pass Hagrid. If I see them first, and it’s possible and safe, I’ll make space by crossing the road (although that can be a major manoeuvre for Hagrid). You have to weigh up the options at the time.
On one particular walk recently we made our way down a quiet overgrown alley; not an ideal place to meet anything but it’s a risk I sometimes choose to take as so rarely do we see anyone, providing I’m careful with the timing. Over time, I have made every effort to distance Hagrid from people’s advances in a bid to give him some personal space so he has come to trust that people are much safer than he used to think. Seldom does anyone have a hands on approach with him. Initially, his reaction to people was to slither along the ground in a large curve which then developed into a more confident bark as and when they passed. Occasionally we do see people and I try to make sure there’s sufficient space for Hagrid so he doesn’t become flustered and worry, lose his confidence and want to go home. Seeing people just once in a while has helped Hagrid build his self confidence, trusting in the fact that no one will invade his space and knowing he has a choice whether to meet them or not. These days when someone speaks to me in passing or stops for a brief chat, he is in a much better position to deal with it and often chooses to distance himself from them, though not always. However, there is still some underlying apprehension in Hagrid so I’ve learnt how least to offend folk when asking them to give him space. There are certain people I know and can trust to be around him and some even understand enough to allow him to sniff them while resisting the temptation to touch or stare at him which has helped him gain confidence.
Because of Hagrid’s disabilities, it can often take him a few seconds to notice if anyone was in the vicinity so that also helps me to manage thing a bit. Still, I don’t like to put this pressure on him hence going out at quiet times of the day or in less pleasant weather conditions. Imagine how unsettling it must feel knowing someone has gone past and you noticed too late. Hagrid sometimes seems suspicious, strangely when nothing is happening, and I guess it could well be due to times he’s only realised that people or dogs have passed him by after the event. What a confusing world he must live in.
Down in the alleyway I guide him through the zigzagged railings by careful use of the lead. As my granddaughter says “you’re his guide person”. Hagrid relies heavily on his nose to gather information about his surroundings. Although his eyes work to some extent, he does not seem to process visual stimuli very well for some reason. Perhaps it is his awareness levels, which fluctuate in accordance with his general health at the time. Perhaps the loose skin around his head also obscures his vision to an extent. On this occasion Hagrid’s nose led him to quite a large half eaten cup cake, which he soon demolished and I waited while he had a good rummage around, no doubt trying to find others and making sure every crumb had gone. After a few minutes (I do mean minutes – he’s slower than your average mastiff – by the way, that means the mastiffs I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot) he walked on a metre or so before back tracking. Back tracking is something dogs will often do if allowed to. It happens because of wind direction and the way smells drift and how dogs find them. Information is carried on the wind and moved by air movement/currents. So having gone back, he enthusiastically began to sniff the fence with great concentration. I happened to notice a cat peering over a wall opposite to where Hagrid was sniffing. What a picture it made. The cat observing the dog intently as he tried desperately to locate the smell the cat had left or was giving off.
When Hagrid is so absorbed, it gives me information that there has been something there recently or is perhaps still nearby. After a minute, he suddenly got a whiff of the cat and noticed it on top of the wall, which, fortunately for the cat, was some height above Hagrid.
He became even more animated and keen to get closer to the cat. As soon as he attempted to climb the wall, the cat thought better of watching and vanished from sight.
Okay, so now I think we’re off again having spent at least 5 minutes in this short alley but…..just hang on says Hagrid, I need to go back to see if anyone has chucked more cupcakes down. So back a few feet we go. Sniff, sniff, sniff, snuffle, snuffle, snuffle. Hmmmm, no more cup cakes. Maybe more cats then. After another 5 minutes of checking out where he’d found it – doing it properly this time – he decided that he had finished with cats, but now needed a rest. He sat down and his nose began gently twitching – completely different sniffing from before. This sniffing seemed to be a mild interest in the general environment and, after yet more minutes, we moved toward the end of the alley where I spied the cup cake wrapper in thick ivy growing alongside the wall. Soon (that’s Hagrid soon!) after Hagrid caught whiff of something good and began mooching in the ivy, slowly working his way down to the discarded wrapper. And then ‘Bingo’ his big head landed alongside the wrapper, then on top of it. GONE.
When I saw the wrapper I made a decision to allow Hagrid have it. I could have put a boundary on the lead preventing him getting it. Having used boundaries on the lead regularly Hagrid responds well to them and respects the communication between us. On our walks I have an advantage over him and can see ahead, so stay vigilant and if I see him sniffing intently I can spot the likely item of interest before he has chance to track it down. Because I know my dogs I use my judgement regarding what is likely to do them harm and allow them occasionally to have bits of food and other things dogs find tasty (!) when we are out, so when putting boundaries in they respect them. If I constantly and unreasonably restricted Hagrid’s access to things he was drawn to he’d probably become frustrated and if he was really attracted to something, he could easily use his strength and weight (13 stone) to get it, bolt it down before I stopped him. This ‘give and take’ scenario I’ve just explained works so well. If we allow dogs a little freedom, supporting their decisions and engaging with them, they are more likely to feel good about themselves (confidence building), respect our wishes and enhance the relationship between us.
While Hagrid had his head in the ivy taking in various smells, then devouring the wrapper, a lady walked past us. As I was involved and focused on what Hagrid was doing, I didn’t speak to her but, when he’d finished his wrapper, a few seconds later he picked up on her scent. However, he barely noticed probably because his recent activity was still being processed and took priority. He sat down again for a short time just being there and registering his environment by air scenting before we headed back home getting there quite quickly for him, with just a couple of sniffs and rummages.
The point of this story is simply to show how enriching and fulfilling a short, slow walk can be for a dog and owner too (sad I know!). Okay so Hagrid isn’t your run of the mill average dog but it’s the little things that we overlook or take for granted that can hold a lot of meaning for a dog. Taking time to slowly let a dog explore, backtracking when he wants to, is another way of giving him a choice about ‘his’ walk.
We were out for hardly half an hour but for Hagrid it was a high quality walk.