By Andee Bingham, Brother Wolf Staff Writer
Three mornings a week, Brother Wolf’s Outward Hounds Hiking Club gets dogs out of the shelter and into the woods. For dogs like Balboa, a behaviorally-challenged pitbull, hiking with the group helped provide exercise and teach good social behaviors
Balboa was rescued from a flooded community in South Carolina in October 2015, and an experienced Outward Hounds hiker named Loren met him shortly after. Loren’s regular hiking buddy had recently been adopted and he had been looking to build an ongoing relationship with a new dog. It was Tristan, Brother Wolf’s Animal Behavior Manager, who suggested Balboa as a good match.
“Balboa is strong, can be reactive on leash, and tends to get over excited and jumpy” Tristan says. “Because of those things, we didn’t have many volunteers who were experienced enough to handle him. Without a lot of exercise, his reactivity and arousal were getting worse.”
Tristan and the behavior team had been bringing Balboa into playgroups often, but there weren’t many dogs who were comfortable playing with him because he was so rowdy. She knew that if he went with an experienced volunteer, hikes would provide him with much needed exercise and mental stimulation.
“Loren is a regular Outward Hounds hiker who had experience with other challenging dogs,” Tristan says, “so I knew he could handle the physical demand of walking Balboa. I trusted his judgment about how to keep Balboa in situations that set him up for success. I knew Loren would be a great friend for Balboa to have!”
During my own time working at Brother Wolf, I had become very familiar with Balboa. He was a total sweetheart, but was often intimidating to volunteers and visitors because of his size, strength, and piercing pale eyes.
When left alone, he could be found goofily perching on top of a crate inside his run, much like a cat. When other dogs walk by, however, he tensed up, barked, and slammed himself against the gate. It was the contrast of these behaviors that initially made me curious about what he’d be like on an Outward Hounds hike, removed from the stimulating shelter environment. So when Loren invited me out to the trails with him, Balboa, and the rest of the Outward Hounds crew, I jumped at the chance.
I met them at the adoption center on a Thursday morning. Many of the hikers had already chosen and harnessed up their dogs and were gathering around the front of the building. Some hikers, like Loren, build ongoing hiking relationships with certain dogs, but others like to take new dogs each time. Each morning before the hike, a kennel staff member makes a list of outing-appropriate dogs for hikers to choose from, including a few less challenging dogs for newbies. In order to be eligible to hike, dogs must be spayed or neutered, up to date on vaccines, and free of any medical or behavioral issues that could create an unsafe environment for the dog, hikers, or the general public.
Loren worked with Brian, Brother Wolf’s kennel supervisor, to get Balboa harnessed with minimal stimulation. First, they moved Balboa to an enclosed outer yard, where there were no other visible dogs to get him riled up. Next, Brian fed Balboa a steady stream of treats to distract him while Loren slipped the harness on. Once the harness was secure, we exited through the back gate to relieve him of the stress of walking through the shelter.
We took a quick walk up the street before loading Balboa into the car, which gave us a chance to chat. “He was very hard to work with at first,” Loren remembers. “He was reactive to everything when he was on a leash. I couldn’t see how he could possibly ever get adopted like that.” But over the past year and a half, Loren has seen Balboa grow and learn a lot. Not only has Balboa learned commands and manners, he has even become accepting of other dogs on the Outward Hounds hikes! “I think he sees the other dogs as part of his pack now,” Loren says.
Several hikers were waiting for us at the head of the Pasture Dam trail when we arrived and more showed up shortly after. Several of the experienced hikers had chosen dogs with behavioral challenges, not unlike Balboa.
Once on the the trail, hikers began naturally falling into place, according to each dog’s particular needs. One dog, for instance, barked nonstop if he could see other dogs in front of him, so his hiker took over the role of Hike Leader, putting him at the head of the pack.
The hikers did a great job of keeping the dogs a safe distance from each other and diffusing tensions before they got out of hand while still walking as a group. That level of care and awareness makes it possible for reactive dogs like Balboa to participate in the hikes.
Balboa truly was a different dog out on the trail. Even though he was on a leash with other dogs around (two of his main triggers), he was a perfect gentleman. Even when other dogs got too close or a squirrel tempted him by darting across the trail, he listened to Loren’s commands and had minimal reactions.
It was an unusually warm February morning and all of the dogs had spring fever. The woods were full of interesting things to sniff and explore. Several of the dogs enjoyed rolling around in new patches of green grass.
Balboa seems content to stay by Loren’s side, waiting for chances to sit for treats or get scratched on the head.
On the way back to the adoption center, Balboa sprawled out in Loren’s back seat with heavy-lidded eyes, clearly worn out from his adventure. “I’ve seen him grow so much over the past year and a half,” Loren said as we drove back. “Balboa really is an adoptable dog now and a lot of credit for that goes to the Outward Hounds hikes.”
Loren was right! A month after my hike with them, Balboa went to his forever home with a person who is committed to helping Balboa become happier and healthier every day.
Click here to learn more about the Outward Hounds Hiking Club
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