The mud at Hucking Woods is swampy beyond good sense at the moment, yet still we ladies plough manfully on in our wellies each week, while our three young dogs race excitedly through the trees together.
This week, as well as tromping, we practiced recalls, sits, downs and stays. While Dudley and Molly continued their 'stays', I also took the opportunity to squeeze in some off lead heel walking with Polly ... it is so helpful to have lovely supportive friends to practice with.
By then, I was feeling rather proud of Polly; she'd returned to me promptly each time I'd called, sat and 'downed' in a lovely controlled manner when asked and 'stayed' while her friends settled into their 'stays'. As we let the dogs loose again and set off along the swampy track, I turned my attention back to my feet and staying upright in the mud ...
And unknown to me, that was the precise moment a large horse appeared out of sight, around the corner. Jane and Sue were ahead of me and although they couldn't see the horse at first, they did spot their dogs' suddenly change in behaviour and quickly shouted recall commands. Like the beautifully trained dogs they are, both Molly and Dudley returned immediately.
Unfortunately my brief delay in reaching Sue and Jane, gave Polly just enough time to move further along the track towards the horse ... which as you can imagine, was quite a shock as I turned the corner. I called 'Polly come' and breathed a momentary sigh of relief when she turned and began to return but then something changed her mind and she headed back along the track. I bellowed again, but by that time she was stood transfixed by the four-legged giant before her. Trying to swallow a rising sense of panic, I opted to march quickly towards her and call her back from a closer distance; she looked my way, but then began to bark at the horse - I don't know if she thought she was protecting me, or was just over excited, but either way, it was an anxious moment. I had a whistle in my pocket, but was concerned that by using it I might spook the horse causing her to throw her rider, so I dismissed using it. Thankfully, the horse remained completely calm throughout and her rider told me not to worry as they were both used to dogs. Relieved, I thanked her and moved to the verge to call Polly across to me from the side; Polly responded by circling the horse to reach me and I watched helplessly as the horse very gently drew up one back leg when it sensed my silly girl pass behind. It was a scary moment which probably only lasted a split second, but felt like a lifetime! At that point, Polly ran over to me, I made a desperate lunge to make sure she didn't break free and the horse gently put down its hind leg. Phew.
This incident has highlighted to me exactly how important a strong recall is when allowing a dog off lead. It is the first time we have ever encountered a horse in the woods and even though Polly's recall has previously been consistent, it obviously isn't yet strong enough to keep her from harm's way or from possibly causing harm, when we need it most in unpredictable circumstances. All things considered, she is very young and still learning about the world around her ... the balance between testing her recall by giving her experiences off lead and keeping her safe, is a fine one and not always easy to judge as the great outdoors can be unpredictable.
The first thing I did when we came home, was to find out whether it would have been appropriate to use my whistle to recall in such circumstances. The advice I received was yes, if Polly has been trained to recall strongly to a whistle, use the whistle - a horse is less likely to be spooked by a recall whistle blown from a distance, than it is by a dog behaving unpredictably nearby. Sound advice, so I intend to build on Polly's whistle recall response to give her the best possible chance at a really solid recall, so that she can continue to enjoy her off lead fun, but hopefully without shredding my nerves, or anyone else's, in future!!!