By Ann Bond
Any dog owner knows that teaching a canine not to chase wildlife is difficult, but I recently stumbled on a trainer with a winning technique. The first session came as a surprise. I was walking my dogs near my house, north of town. The dogs spotted a small herd of deer up a hillside and, of course, began bounding in their direction. Suddenly, a lone doe broke from the herd and made a beeline down toward them. Much to my dogs' amazement, the doe proceeded to try to stomp each of them into the ground. Being rather small dogs, my pets beat a fast retreat.
The next time we met this doe of a different demeanor, the dogs at first answered their instincts and headed towards her. But, when she again countered their advance, something clicked. They turned tail, literally, and returned to my side. A few days later, Ms. Doe changed her defensive approach to an offensive one. As I was tossing the dogs their beloved tennis ball down a hill, she saw us from afar and charged across a field to confront us with flashing eyes. As we all watched her approaching, my brave little beasts immediately bolted to the supposed safety of their momma. I stood, tennis ball in hand, with canines cowering under my legs, mute as babes. Several hundred pounds of huffing and puffing beast skidded to a stop only a few feet from us.
Head high, nostrils flared, tail twitching; she stared down at me, unblinking. I can promise there was nothing "doe-like" in her eyes. She let me know that she thought as little of humans as she did of dogs. I spoke to her quietly, but sternly, with my hands over my head to look larger. The doe stood her ground, glaring at us as we slowly retreated. The dogs moved with me as I stepped back with my hands still overhead, repeating a mantra of something like, "Good deer, you stay, we're going to go now."
I learned that many of my neighbors' dogs had similar encounters with Super Doe. One had even suffered a gash requiring several stitches, so I knew this deer meant business. Once, when she retreated after one of our encounters, I thought the coast was clear, so the dogs and I respectfully resumed our journey. However, she saw us from across a field, circled around, and returned to reiterate her point.
The end result is that my dogs think twice when they see a deer. Shall we chase it, or will it chase us? In fact, my dogs are now often easily sidetracked by the offer of a treat or ball. I suppose that, in their doggie minds, deer have moved higher up the food chain than canines.
I wanted to investigate the doe's unique behavior, so I asked a federal wildlife biologist what would turn a mild-mannered doe into a super hero. He suggested I turn her into state wildlife authorities. But I wasn't interested in having her arrested. Just the opposite; I appreciated that she had supplied my dogs with good training and me with great stories. So I decided to try to learn her motivation through observation. I discovered the clue the last time we saw her; she stood with a yearling fawn. Her baby must have been safely hidden away whenever its mother had chased us before. Her inspiration had been maternal. The doe took one step in our direction. The dogs went the other way. Mission accomplished.
My solution to the problem has been to change the timing of our walks so we're not in her territory at the same time she is - usually early or late in the day. We've also altered our route a bit to steer clear of the edge habitat that the herd is so fond of, between the cover of trees and the open meadows. My small compromise means the deer can rest and feed in peace. It's the neighborly thing to do. And we should do it without a doe demanding it.