Thursday, May 30, 2013

Leave No Trace

One of this month's many projects, I spent six days hiking hiking the Superior Hiking trail on the north shore of Lake Superior with my friend Crystal, her dog Maisy, and my favorite dog, Piper Ann. Rubi got to skip this trip as the Superior Hiking Trail is much more popular than the Border Route we did last year, and I was worried about running into other hikers with their dogs.

Extended wilderness trips are a unique experience. As Crystal mentioned on the first day, it tend to reprioritize your list of "things I can't live without" really quickly. Part of it is losing contact with the outside world and discovering that not only does the world not revolve around you, but it can, in fact, get along just fine without you. The experience also redefines comfort. For example, I've learned that I can live without running water, toilets, and showers, but I am absolutely miserable if my boots are wet. You get dirty. Really dirty. Gross dirty. And there's hard work involved: packing from place to place, setting up camp, hoping the stove works, purifying water. And at the same time, everything around you is overwhelmingly beautiful and awesome and it fills up your soul to know that such a rich world exists. The backwoods is simultaneously the most and least romantic place on earth.

I am not a religious person, but I am rather spiritual. These woods are my church, my place of worship. And if the hiker has a bible, then there is only one command: Leave No Trace. This means that you pick up after yourself. You also pick up after anyone less devoted than yourself. You're responsible about lighting fires and where you put your tent so as to disturb the natural flora and fauna as little as possible. If you cannot leave a place untouched, then at least leave it unsullied.

The Leave No Trace philosophy permeates my life. In medicine, it catches the term "Do No Harm." We interfere with the natural progression of illness and health with our presence, treatments, and advice, but we always aspire to improve the state of being. And if we cannot make improvement then, please dear lord, let us do no harm - let us leave no trace.

It is no wonder, then, that I carry Leave No Trace into my work as a dog trainer as well - and no where is that more evident than with my work with Rubi. My goal for Rubi has never been to "fix" her reactivity. Rubi is not broken. My chief concern has always been to make Rubi happy. Working on her reactivity is a side effect of this goal. The less reactive she is, the more places she can go, and the happier she will be. I have every confidence that I could have used punishment to eliminate or greatly reduce Rubi's reactive behaviors of screaming and lunging.

The fallout from that level of punishment can be huge, though. It can increase anxiety, damage our relationship, and even cause dog aggression. On the other hand, through counter conditioning and desensitization, I have altered the underlying cause of her reactivity. With little or no fallout, I have made lasting changes to her behavior: I can hand Rubi off to a virtual stranger, and her positive behaviors maintain themselves.

Rubi is the same dog that barreled through my door three years ago. She continues to be enthusiastic, vibrant, and overjoyed to be alive. I have not changed that. And should I disappear without a trace, she will continue to be all of these things; all I have changed is her reactivity. I have not left her untouched, but I have left her unsullied, and we are both the better for it.

Photo by Paige.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nice work, Laura. (sorry for the removed comment above...I couldn't tolerate the punctuation mistake)

  3. Beautiful and wise post :)