Dogs, Ducks, and an African Lion? Sierra goes to Big Bear

August 21, 2010

They say you really get to know someone when you travel together. In this case it wasn’t my husband I was getting to know better—we were going to Big Bear to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, after all—it was Sierra. Having had her for only a little over seven months now, we didn’t know what type of traveler she’d make. Would she get carsick on the long drive up or back? Become destructive in the cabin we’d rented? How would she deal with all the new sights and sounds? Thankfully, the answers were no, no, and amazingly well. What we discovered in short order is that Sierra is very adaptable, thoroughly enjoys new places and people, and is a fun traveling companion.

Because we’re still working through Sierra’s separation issues, we couldn’t imagine leaving her in a kennel while we went away. So after careful research, I’d found the Cienaga Creek Ranch in Big Bear City, which rents what might be termed “upscale rustic” cabins. My kind of camping! Best of all, the accommodations are dog friendly. The San Bernardino National Forest is only a three-hour drive from L.A., but being immersed in such raw natural beauty, we instantly felt transported.

We began each morning by hiking and exploring. Although dogs are allowed off-leash—it’s actually a selling point for visitors—we’re just not the betting type with a dog who’d been in the shelter four times before we adopted her. Sierra wore a long line and body harness for any outdoor activities, and didn’t seem to mind a bit. The hikes allowed her to climb rocks and jump over logs, race up and down trails, and best of all, follow the scent of fascinating critters. It really was Disneyland for dogs.

There was one type of animal we’d read about in the brochure, but were still taken aback when we heard him; an African lion. No, lions aren’t suddenly running amuck in the wilds of southern California. Randy Miller, a top animal trainer for the film industry, owns a compound called Predators in Action. The facility is very close to the cabins, and as promised, we heard the lion roar throughout our stay. I’d been worried about how Sierra would handle such an unfamiliar and perhaps frightening sound. Another surprise—she tilted her head and listened the first time or two, and then went about her business. Someone’s got to track those squirrels, after all!

Next, we drove down to the lake where we discovered that no, Sierra most certainly does not have a fear of the water—especially when ducks are involved. She waded right in after a family of ducks who were happily floating by. I’m betting that had she been leash-free, she’d have swum out to do her own version of a duck meet and greet.

Speaking of meeting and greeting, we had lunch at a restaurant in town that we’d heard was dog-friendly. My husband had visions of sitting at a patio table having to restrain Sierra the entire time, unable to eat or drink his beer…and she completely surprised him. After some initial sniffing around, she settled down quite nicely for most of the meal. Well, tethering her with a short leash a chair helped, too. (And yes, I could have asked her to down-stay, but she hadn’t had practice yet around so many distractions.) There was a lot of oohing and aahing from surrounding patrons, and some drive-by petting that Sierra took in stride. A little girl at the next table kept excitedly pointing to Sierra throughout the meal and whispering to her brother. Finally, she asked her father if she could go over to say hello. I assured dad that yes, the slightly wolfy-looking dog does like children (and not for breakfast), and a very sweet cuddle-fest ensued.

As with any good vacation, the time flew by all too quickly. Three days after we’d left, we left the cool, lush forest and headed back to the hot desert. I already miss the crisp air and the way the morning light hits the trees. Sierra doesn’t seem to mind at all, as she’s currently involved in happily coaxing treats out of a ball. I have to admit that in all the years I’ve lived with dogs, this is the first time I’ve actually traveled with one. After seeing how well Sierra did, my husband and I have decided that it surely won’t be the last.


How Much Does a Dog Need Other Dogs?

August 11, 2010

Sierra is a furry social butterfly. Not only does she love people, but she loves to play with other dogs. Most mornings I take her to the dog park early, before the other dogs arrive, to meet canine friends for play dates. We let the dogs run and wrestle, and then, when unfamiliar dogs begin to arrive, we take our dogs for a two-mile walk around the park perimeter. It’s fun for the dogs and nice socialization for us humans as well.

On the days I don’t take Sierra for play dates, my husband takes her for hikes. They warm up by walking around a local park, and then head out into the arroyo, a vast, unpopulated area where Sierra can roam as far as the long-line will allow, following scents and having a great time. It’s great exercise and fun for both her and my husband. In addition, we periodically engage in sports like urban mushing, where Sierra and her best husky pal can indulge their breed tendencies by pulling a person on a scooter. I recently realized that my wall calendar is filled with many more “Sierra dates” than special activities for me!

Even with all of the exercise, and the endless Kongs, chewies, training, games, and tons of affection Sierra receives daily, I’ve wondered whether she would be better off having a dog buddy at home. It’s true that she sleeps for a large part of the day after her morning workout, but as is natural with canine biorhythms, she becomes active again around 5-6 p.m. This is the time when I look at her and say, “See, if you had a buddy, you’d be wrestling now.” I’ve perused various “boy toy” candidates online, and we’ve met with a few. So far, we have not found the right dog. After introducing Sierra to a husky from a rescue group this past weekend—he jumped on her in a rough way, she said, “I don’t think so!” and a skirmish ensued—we are regrouping and questioning whether Sierra actually needs another dog at home or not.

I’ve noticed the way Sierra inserts herself between me and whatever dog I happen to be petting at the park. It makes me wonder just how jealous of attention she’d be with a new dog in the house, and how much of a problem it might cause. And, perhaps selfishly, we like our life with just our girl. She knows the daily routine, and is an easy keeper in the house, especially for a young husky mix. She’s practically non-destructive, and if she steals anything, well, she has an odd habit of bringing it to you with her ears back and eyes squinting as if to say, “I couldn’t help myself!” It’s hard not to laugh. And there are the long cuddle sessions that make me feel just as good as she does. Of course, there would still be cuddling with another dog present, but it is divided attention any way you look at it.

Sierra is not completely baggage-free: we’ve been dealing with her separation issues since we brought her home seven months ago. She’s made huge improvements, especially for a dog who’d been in the shelter four times before we adopted her. A second adult dog would come complete with his own issues, some of which might make him more of a “project” than I’m looking for; it’s easy to rule some dogs out immediately, but harder to see the underlying issues until the dog has been in your home for a while. It is true that having another dog might well solve Sierra’s separation issues entirely, since she’s got more of an “isolation distress” than a true separation anxiety from a particular person. But it might not solve the problem, and either way, that’s not a good enough reason on its own to get another dog.

Right now, we’re regrouping and considering what would be best for all of us. But it got me thinking about how many “only dogs” are out there, and how many opinions there are on the subject. I’ve heard behavior specialists who I respect lecture that dogs need to have other dogs at home. I respectfully disagree, assuming the dog gets some form of regular socialization with other dogs, and plenty of exercise. In a way, it takes more of an effort to have a singleton dog, because you are responsible for all of the exercise and play. You’ve got to work hard. But to us, Sierra is worth it, and whatever we decide in the long run, for now she’s our one and only.

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