By Randy Pierce
A very common question in my world is, “When is Autumn going to hike?” The answer is far clearer after a tremendous experience with the mighty Mt. Agamenticus! We have been steadily developing our teamwork and understanding of each other in the conventional Dog Guide work. I’m well aware of some of the challenging parts of work for her as well as the strengths; conversely, I haven’t been entirely convinced of her awareness of my limitations and challenges. That all changed on Tuesday, May 20.
I arrived bristling with eager anticipation at the trailhead for Mt. Agamenticus with Laura Mountain and Autumn. We would be returning to hike with students from nearby Marshwood Middle School in the afternoon and it was time to understand what worked and what didn’t work for us as a team. Placing the harness on Autumn immediately begins the transformation to a higher focus; she’s still an energetic and occasionally distracted young pup with excellent confidence. As we started upon the Ring Trail we stepped up to our first rocky step challenge and she strode a bit more boldly than I might prefer. While I could manage it, I decided to stop her and rework her. I thought it would be worthwhile to emphasize her need to pay attention fully to the tricky aspects of my finding my step.
Her confidence extended to my ability to stride as well apparently. Stepping back and asking her go forward led to an excellent “approach, slow, and pause” for the footing while I tapped out my awareness of it with my foot. We resumed and I noticed a shift in her stride in the harness. Moments later she angled and paused beautifully for more challenging steps and also kept the confidence to work through it with me after my acknowledgement of her alert. This repeated many times as the challenges became more significant.
My smile grew and Laura and I began to talk about the intensity of her watching the trail, my steps and the best angle of approach. She made choice after choice that simply demonstrated she understood the challenge for me in getting my feet around a tricky trail. She was independent enough to ignore the route Laura sometimes took, and each time for the right seeming reasons. My smile burst forth and yet showcased only the barest hint of the jubilation I felt inside. Autumn understood my needs on a trail, and far faster than I might have ever anticipated or even hoped. Cautiously adjusting her body to clear me of each obstacle, slowing and holding her balance to manage the angled descents, she was ever aware of when we could stride confidently and when we must step cautiously. It was as if she had reached an epiphany with my need for her and not just a system of rules we were trying to follow. It was simply beautiful!
Laura and I began to celebrate the experience together and she captured many photos and videos of the invigorating process. Laura’s sight and description helped ensure I fully understood the great work from Autumn. My confidence blossomed and Autumn’s enjoyment and confidence never wavered. We hiked up and down the mountain with and without students that day. Better still, Autumn has taken this confidence and new awareness to the rest of our work together. I certainly believe the many lessons learned over miles and years with Quinn helped me to understand my role better as well. I have high confidence that as we increase the hiking opportunities slowly yet steadily, Autumn will continue to learn and respond with the eager enthusiasm which was the hallmark of our first hike. It’s ironic to me that for all the presentations I provide with an emphasis on “Believing in Possibility,” I had somehow allowed a bit more doubt than is usual or appropriate. It’s a wonderful reminder to me that Autumn has many lessons to share with me in the miles and years ahead!