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Bowdu runs free on the Bonneville Salt Flats, w/ the Doggy Daddy and me in frantic pursuit. Taken by our friend Seth in August 2006.

That’s a blurry little picture of the Doggy Daddy and me, chasing after Bowdu across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

We’d been driving for days, on our way from the Midwest to California for the final leg of our major international move. The combination of three adults and one dog crammed into a Toyota Camry had just started to make everyone a little stir-crazy.

In the preceding three weeks, Bowdu had traveled a total of 20 hours on an airplane, and been bounced back and forth between my parents’ home and the Doggy Daddy’s parents’ home about two hours away, while we prepared for the move. At my home and the Doggy Daddy’s home, he had stolen several opportunities to escape, as neither of our parents were accustomed to his door-bolting or his inability to limit himself to an unfenced yard. The times he ran off always made me panic a little, but in my pursuits I was able to observe that what kept Bowdu running seemed to be 1) the pleasure of running itself, 2) the freedom to sniff and explore new things — garden planters, lawn ornaments, objects heaped by other people’s houses and not just sidewalks and overmarked mailbox posts, and 3) an adolescent thrill in defiance. That is, I saw that the more urgently I chased him, the faster he would run away, but if I slackened my pace and watched from a slightly further distance, he wouldn’t try as hard to stay away, until I could eventually just walk up to him and clip him back on leash.

So whenever he got off leash, he wasn’t behaving as if he wanted to escape or be “free”. What he wanted was to run and explore, and if I was going to get in the way of that, then he would run away from me.

That’s how I saw it, anyway. But I didn’t have this formulated so clearly in my mind when I let him loose on the Bonneville Salt Flats that evening. At that point, we had all been cooped up for hours a day in a four-door sedan that was also weighted down with as many worldly possessions as the Doggy Daddy and I deemed necessary to start our new lives. We had been sleeping in a different place every night, risking some downright uninhabitable places for the sake of a bargain. We had left behind a life of relative wealth and comfort, and we had drained our savings to move overseas with our dog. There had been a lot to think about on that drive, and none of us were in our usual frame of mind. For the sake of expediency, we had bypassed the scenic routes, so the salt flats were the first truly impressive vista that made us say wow — Hello America. They had overwhelmed my sense of perception; I had not seen such vastness in a long, long time.

Lots of land for running, just running, with no olfactory distractions. Surely Bowdu wouldn’t be able to exhaust this expanse?

Mesmerized by the landscape, I stooped down and unhooked his leash.

And he ran.

Straight in one direction, towards the horizon.

No, I hadn’t thought through the situation very carefully.

We started running after him, clapping and calling probably with a pitch of terror in our voices. (Note: This just makes dogs more likely to run away from you.) Eventually, he did swing back, only to zoom past us and in the direction of the highway instead, which was still some distance away, but it made my stomach lurch nonetheless. At some moment in that frantic game of tag, I had an epiphany when I glimpsed the look of pure, unrepentant glee on his face as he barreled past. His infectious joy overcame my worry, and somehow, the pursuit morphed into a game, where the humans veered off and started chasing each other, zigzagging back and forth across as meager an area of the salt flats as our clumsy legs could traverse. Only when Bowdu joined in on this three-way tag was he eventually coaxed back into reach.

Seth says it took about ten minutes for us to round him back up. No doubt those were the most fun ten minutes Bowdu had had in days.

But for me, what preceded the pleasure was surely panic. I couldn’t dare to imagine that he was going to run away forever, but I knew I wondered if we would get him back before nightfall, or if we would be camping out on the salt flats that night, waiting for him to get tired of running nowhere and come back. We’re lucky the outcome was not so dire, but immediately afterward, I was willing to admit this was a pretty bone-headed move.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life that, despite it all, turned out okay. It doesn’t make them any less stupid.

Nevertheless, this misadventure didn’t stop us from letting him off leash later, in more suitable and now familiar places.

Photo taken 26 August 2006

Occasionally, other Shiba owners will ask how I trained Bowdu to walk off leash. The most memorable time was one day just last spring, when we chanced upon a large Shiba family reunion at our favorite 18-acre off-leash park situated in the middle of a 90-acre peninsula jutting out into the bay. Bowdu and I were surrounded by about a dozen Shiba owners with every dog on leash, marveling at how “well-trained” he must be and asking to share our secret.

I never know how to answer “How did you…?” because I don’t think we systematically trained him. Even that first time on the Bonneville Salt Flats should not have happened the way it did, from a training perspective. But because he came back after being let loose there, I felt like I gained insight into something that penetrates animal instinct, and enters something like personality, if I may call it that. Over the course of that journey and the subsequent adjustment period that followed, we learned about his limits as well as his capacities. Our collective relationship clicked in some way that… I’m still striving for the words to describe. I know that’s a cop-out, and not much of a conclusion. I just know that from then onward, we were emboldened to make more informed choices about letting him run loose when we later encountered more appropriate terrain, because we witnessed what space and topography could do to his behavior, as well as ours.

As a final word of caution, and to reiterate what I mentioned in my first installment of my thoughts on off-leash Basenjis and Shibas, I do not mean to suggest that every or even most Shibas can be safely let off lead. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s such a rare occurrence that we need to balk and gasp like a unicorn was just sighted, as the Shiba family reunion members did, or that we need to chide the human not at the end of the lead on how they’re taking “irresponsible” risks, as has also happened to me elsewhere.

First and foremost, you get to know your dog on an individual level and not merely as a subset of a generalized breed standard. Then secondly, you decide for yourself what you are truly comfortable with. And if you don’t think you’ll ever be comfortable with risking your dog off-leash in any kind of space, then so be it. Always better to be safe than sorry, as your dog ultimately loves you for the security you provide, from within and without.