Building a better outdoor companion.
The wall is narrow, and high: six, maybe seven feet tall. A cat might leap onto it without hesitation, but for a dog, it’s a daunting proposition: a scant four inches upon which to balance his entire body, while pondering a long fall to the ground.
So it’s no surprise that Raleigh doesn’t want anything to do with it. He’s climbed ramps, traversed ladders, jumped onto small platforms, and hopped across wobbly car tires piled one on the other. But the wall is too much.
“Get up there,” the trainer tells me. “Remember, he wants to come to you.”
I climb up, straddle the wall, and sure enough, Raleigh’s demeanor shifts. He puts his paws up, and with a boost from the trainer, claws and clambers toward me. I reach down and help. First a front paw, then another, and finally all four legs are on top. He sits up, shaky at first, but soon calms and finds his balance. A cheer from the trainer, a hearty atta-boy from me, and he’s beaming.
After that, all bets are off. The dog is undaunted. He climbs anything, everything. Another wall, similar but shorter: I point to it and he leaps with abandon, front paws over, chest slamming into the top, hind legs scrambling for purchase. His fear isn’t gone, it’s just been displaced, silenced, overwhelmed—by enthusiasm and eagerness. By trust in my commands. And by my own my pride, swelling with each leap, each obstacle surmounted, each act of confidence in himself and in me.
It’s the end of the day at Svalinn, a sprawling compound set in the hills above Livingston, where some of the world’s best protection dogs are bred and trained: staggeringly agile canines that will gently lick a child’s face and then attack and take down a bad guy. They’re sweet, smart, beautiful, and badass: the kind of dog that everyone wants to have, the ones they write books and sing songs about. Proper training is essential to the animals’ development, and for a handful of days each year, Svalinn offers the public a taste of its methodology. When I heard about their basic “Stability & Obedience” course, I signed up straight away.
We began with one of Svalinn’s core principles: the training platform. “The box reminds the dog that it’s all business now,” the trainer explained. “It’s not playtime.” And so six of us, with six different dogs—labs, shepherds, mutts like mine—all lined up and got to work. We taught our pups to mount and dismount the box; to sit, lie down, and stay—all on the box, all with hand and voice commands, and all with a sense of discipline and self-control. With the trainers offering advice and correction, we taught them to pay attention, ignore distraction—other dogs, other people, birds flying overhead, sounds off in the distance—and focus on the task at hand. It was slow, deliberate work, and it took tremendous patience. But this basic communication between dog and master, the sense of stability in the dog and trust in its master, is the foundation upon which all other training is built. And by lunchtime, Raleigh and I had it down. We were ready for the obstacle course.
With the snow-capped Absarokas as a backdrop, we work the course together. It takes a while to build Raleigh’s confidence, so we gradually advance from easier obstacles to more difficult ones. He runs through a tunnel. He mounts a barrel, and the trainer tells me to shake it. He bails. I make him mount it again, I shake it, and he bails again. Over and over until finally, he relaxes and accepts the wobble. He scrambles across tires, climbs ladders, and does the sit-lie-stay routine on top of a wagon wheel, which is on top of a table. And then, finally, the wall.
As we sit there together, gazing toward lofty peaks, as large as the mountains themselves is a sense of possibility: of all the things we’re going to do this summer. With Raleigh’s newfound confidence, obedience, agility, and trust in me, a whole new world will open up.
And that’s exactly what happens. Scrambling up steep mountainsides, negotiating wicked deadfall, boulder-hopping scree fields, and paddling fast, rough water—I beam as he eagerly embraces each challenge. No matter where I go, he follows me. No matter what I tell him to do, he does it. And when there’s a safety issue and I need him to listen to me, he does.
An hour west of Bozeman is a place that’s always called to me, an outing I’ve always dreamed about: scrambling the expansive, granite-covered hills off I-90 near Homestake. I’ve never had a canine companion who could climb all that rock: a dog both confident and trusting, who could suspend his fear and follow me wherever I go—or not follow, if I told him to find another route to the top. But now, finally, I do. Boulder Batholith, here we come.
Svalinn offers three different training seminars: Stability & Obedience, Protection & Stability, and Rural Tracking. Check out their course schedule at svalinn.com/training.