Dobby, my young Australian shepherd, pauses at the river’s edge. At nine months of age, it is the first time he’s ever seen a river. To him, I imagine the mass of moving water is a sight to behold. He looks back at me and then dabs a paw at the water.
I smile, watching Dobby discover the wonder of all that water, and urge him on. He is tentative initially and then wades into water up to his chest. He looks at me again, and then trots back and forth in the shallows, seemingly thrilled with this new discovery.
We are along the bank of the Green River in southwest Wyoming. It is my second field trip with Dobby and he is learning the ropes about the great outdoors. I hop back on my mountain bicycle as Dobby and I continue along the rough two-track in my quest to check out some raptor nests along the river. Going via bicycle is actually quicker given the road condition; it is also a lot more entertaining. Dobby agrees. He catches on right away to run alongside, and not in front of the bicycle. Tongue lolling to one side, Dobby trots next to me, looking like he’s smiling. He’s a happy pup.
After about an hour we head back towards the truck when Dobby momentarily disappears. I wait and call for him, not really sure where he’s gone. I realize he went down the bank to the river. He reappears, dripping wet and obviously very pleased with himself. He is like a kid; he just discovered the fun of getting soaking wet and cooling off. He jumps up and down in glee.
As the sun nears the western horizon, I park the truck and set up for the night. I have a modest arrangement with a camper shell set up for sleeping and relaxing. Muggle, my last Aussie, was my best pal for 15 years. Due to his increasing arthritis, he had not joined me in my work as a wildlife biologist for quite a few years. Until Dobby, I didn’t realize how much I missed the company.
It is tight quarters, though, and Dobby seems to think lolling on the bed is his spot. He is unaware that he reeks of “wet dog” and river smell. Then he puts his head in my lap and I melt. I can’t admonish him to get down when he is being such a sweet guy. He looks up at me with those big brown eyes – a look of devotion that is incredibly endearing and why dogs are so beloved.
Dobby takes to camping and fieldwork like a duck to water. Still, he is a “work in progress” with his training. As with most young dogs, he has his strengths and his weaknesses. A plus is that Dobby is a happy traveler. He gazes intently at drivers whenever we pass. I hope his cute face makes them smile.
He comes to me when called – for the most part. I still carry a supply of goodies to reinforce his fast responses.
On the “con” side of the ledger, Dobbie remains attracted to poop – that of other dogs and all other critters.
On this outing we are in wild horse country. Dobby discovers horse “apples” are easy to pick up in his mouth, being about the size of a tennis ball. He prances around with them, as if they’re a prize. In addition, there are cow pies left from last year, stiff and hard. Dobby picks them up like Frisbees. I dread when we start coming across fresh ones.
On one hike, I spot movement about 12 feet away along a rock outcrop. With my short glance before focusing on Dobby I can only tell they are snakes, but I can’t tell the species. I certainly don’t want Dobby checking them out. They could be harmless or they could be the rare midget faded rattlesnake, known to be found in this part of southwest Wyoming.
“Sit,” I tell Dobby. He plops down immediately as I put on his leash. Then I tie the other end to my little backpack and have Dobby lay down. He settles and relaxes as I ease away and repeat the “stay” command. To my relief, Dobby remains calm, just chilling as I check out the snakes.
As it turns out, they are two large wandering garter snakes. I can only guess at what they were doing intertwined as they were – spring is in the air – but they quickly vanish into the dark recess of the alcove.
I go back to Dobby, give him much praise and a few treats, before we resume our hike across the prairie. I’m not so sure I’ll get as lucky next time and have him avoid a wildlife encounter. It is all a learning experience, though, as I continue to teach field smarts to my new companion.