By Namratha Rao*

One morning in March, my dog decided to chase the chickens belonging to my neighbour. My usually calm sweet golden retriever was full of beans that morning! Why oh why could she not have zoomies or tried chasing a cow instead! One chicken was missing, and the neighbour’s entire household was walking in fields searching for her. I was really worried, apologizing every other minute, wondering then, where one could go to buy a chicken. Thankfully, twenty minutes into the search, the chicken drifted cautiously back into the pen from somewhere.

A month before this incident, I had decided to work out of a remote village in Himachal Pradesh, my dog, Ginger, in tow. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity and so blessed to have my dog (and equally adventurous friends-with-dogs) on this experience! We used every day as a chance to explore – new trails, new streams, forests, and met so many kind people along the way. On active days, my dog and I walked around the village and mountainside, raking up at least 2–3 hours of physical activity a day.  On our lazy days, we walked a short way to the river, a mere 15 min walk away. While my dog napped outside of these activities, I was there to work. Working, walking/exploring – working was the routine, along with the staples of good coffee and an exciting book!

Before I describe all the wonderful experiences we had, here are a few hard lessons I learnt:

  • A dog is a dog! Twice on this trip, she chased chickens and it took a whole minute to call her off! It’s a good reminder that no matter how sweet and well-socialized your dog is (yes, she’s met livestock before), and how sedentary they may be in their urban lives, they can always chase, because that’s what dogs do!

  • A dog is a dog! Three times, there were extremely close encounters with village dogs. At each occasion, we were crossing their homes (Ginger is always on leash when crossing human habitation) and a dog charged, getting within inches of biting Ginger. Thankfully, people came to help every single time. Luckily, Ginger was totally fine, but unluckily, the charging village dog got several smacks. We all know how territorial dogs can get, particularly the community dogs. I wish we could have avoided these situations all together. Next trip, I will make doubly sure we don’t trail through the larger villages. However, not every dog encounter was stressful and we met several sweet and tolerant community dogs too!

  • A dog is a dog! One time, Ginger disappeared at night. She was there one second, and just not there, the next second. Turns out, she had sauntered over the neighbour’s house looking for scraps. She has a horrible scavenging habit (leftover from some prior infection, diet issues, and of course, her retriever genes). My attention had diverted that night and I made sure it never happened again! The loudest and most clear rule is to never let your pets roam after sunset – there are predators and you can lose your dog.

Despite these sobering moments, we had a blast! My bhukkhad dog was loved by all in the lodge. I am pretty sure she got three breakfasts everyday – her actual morning meal, a night before’s chapathi from the caretaker and the human breakfast remains of that day! It is hard to resist that retriever charm J

I absolutely love hiking, and every day was a treat. Weekends were especially exciting because we went out all day! We did two meadow ‘thaatch’ hikes, crossed into Jammu to hike around PadriJot (saw snow, felt snowfall!!) and entered the Gamgul-Siyabehi Wildlife Sanctuary. Through all this, Ginger was a good company – following along, happy to explore, roll, run and swim. I had given her a dose of Bravecto at the start of the trip and she did remain tick free. She got boiled meat twice a day and kibble (and numerous snacks) as needed and her supplements, which were plenty of good calories to sustain these adventures. She gets a lot of exercise and activity everyday in our Delhi life too, so I had no doubt she would be able to step up on this trip.

A lot of my ability to travel with Ginger like this – free and as a good team, is rooted in three things –

1) A good foundation of socialization as a puppy – This is imperative, and I cannot underscore how important this is. I am still reaping its rewards.

2) A relationship based on trust – She understands me and I understand her because we have a shared vocabulary i.e. obedience commands, and I make every effort to understand her body language (not only so that she’s comfortable but also to know when she is likely to be naughty!). And, above all, I try to let her be as much of a dog as I can ‘humanly’ allow J

3) Good health – I added this third point as an afterthought; a few years ago, I admit I would not have thought about this. Since Ginger is 7 now and I see her slow down a bit (she is still as naughty and lively though). I pay greater attention to her diet these days, and plan to get her blood work and physical examination done once a year. I am a lot more careful now than I was when she was younger!

During our month-long sojourn in Himachal Pradesh, Ginger and I saw the season change from cold, multi-pant-layered mornings and snow-blocked roads to sunny days of blue, yellow, pink wildflowers, paradise flycatchers and DIY cold brew. In its good and its bad/scary moments (although they were few in number), this trip was a happy and content slice of life, which I will hold precious as we struggle through this terrible, ravaging pandemic.

Homestays we stayed in:

Gaddi Trails, Maira, HP: http://www.gadditrails.com/eco-lodge/

Linger, Palampur, HP: https://palampur-himachal.linger.in/

* Author is a certified canine trainer/behaviourist, working with dogs professionally since 2013 both in the US and in India. She has worked with several kinds of dogs – young and old, big and small, friendly and not-so-friendly. She uses reward-based methods and a lot of play, making the training process fun and easy for the dog and humans involved! She also works with local NGOs to rehabilitate dogs in need. She has trained under various internationally accredited trainers including Shirin Merchant, John Rogerson, and Michael Shikashio.

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