A dog in the wild
The longest I've had to wait for my dog Leela to come back to me after chasing something in the woods is eight minutes, but it felt like a lot longer. Rooted to the exact spot where she left me, knowing it was pointless to keep calling after her let alone go looking for her, I stood in the rain and stared into the trees, fully prepared to stay there for as long as it took for her to return.
My main worries: what if she injures herself and I don't know and can't find her? What if she chases whatever animal is running from her straight into a road? Her safety, I have to admit, was all I really cared about.
And then at the eight minute mark, she burst out of the trees and skidded to a halt right at my feet, looking wildly at me as though asking if I'd seen which way her prey went. So she was back, unharmed, and the animal - probably a muntjac or a deer - got away. All was well, I thought, and quickly leashed her again.
Though Leela loves to hunt and can almost keep up with a running greyhound, she isn't very adept at catching prey. Only once have I seen her kill an animal and that was a mole she had dug up, and I'm fairly sure it was by accident because she seemed more interested in playing with it than hurting or eating it. So for a long time I've been complacent about her chasing things, believing that since she has about a 0.01% success rate, she isn't doing any real harm to wildlife. This belief has been reinforced by the bad rap cats get for their bird-killing ways - I could think badly of people who let their cats roam freely while not batting an eyelid as my dog sent birds bursting out of bushes in a panic.
And then I joined Twitter. I've carefully made my feed into a place where I, as a pretty eco-illiterate person, can learn from writers and ecologists and conservationists. A cheat's education, but an education nonetheless. Sometimes the knowledge I gain this way comes filtered through some very strong opinions, which can distract you with feelings of defensiveness or trying to stop your eyes from rolling too hard.
Recently, I encountered a Twitter thread that, once I had overcome the furious tirades against dogs and their owners, had an important point to make: dogs running loose on beaches can be a massive disturbance to wading birds, the ones that like to settle in the soft wet sand when the tide has just gone out and find food. This was a (unhappy) revelation. My dog could in fact negatively impact birds even if she didn't catch or kill any of them.
And if that were the case for waders, what about the muntjac or deer she had chased for so many agonising minutes through the woods? What about when she is just play-chasing, with no real intent, but all the same she startles a blackbird or a goose or a robin? Is my dog actually wreaking ecological mayhem everywhere she goes? And am I in fact the enemy of wildlife by letting her loose anywhere when nature is already so embattled?
Some people will no doubt say: Yes, you are, and she is. They might say: You should learn to take joy from nature instead of a pet. Somebody has said this to me, in fact. But for me - as for many people - my love of nature is bound up with my love of my dog.
It was only when Leela barrelled into my life several years ago that I started walking a lot, which led me to pay much more attention to my surroundings. At first, it was mainly about looking out for hazards: things the dog might eat off the ground, animals she might chase, bushes she might get stuck in if she decided she just had to investigate the interior. I still look out for all those things, of course, but over time I developed an additional layer of attentiveness, using our walks as opportunities to observe the activities of birds and insects, to look closely at the texture of tree trunks and the shapes of leaves. I've been worried about climate change and the destruction of habitats for my whole adult life, but it is only in the last few years that my thoughts hooked on to the world in front of me. Before that, it was some world out there that I was worried about.
So my dog has, quite directly, led to an increase in my care for my local environments. Which makes her disturbance of their non-human inhabitants all the more distressing. Yet, I can't commit to never let her loose where she might disturb wildlife - of which I hope there will be more and more in the future - because she has needs too and I take my duty to give her the best life she can have very seriously. I also can't commit to her being the last dog in my life for the sake of wildlife. There is no going back to a dog-free existence now. I don't need to read the studies of dogs boosting physical and mental health or the many pieces by people whose lives were basically saved by their canine companions to know life without a dog would, for me, be duller and lonelier.
What I can commit to, and what I think all dog-owners ought to commit to, is respecting any signs that ask you to keep your dog leashed, even if you can't see what wildlife they could be disturbing. I am supportive of a ban on dogs in nature reserves. Outside of those, I can commit to greater vigilance on behalf of wildlife, to exercise a new attentiveness to how mine and my dog's presence is affecting them and to minimise it where I can. Maybe not all animals are as sensitive to disturbance as waders, but this might be something dog-owners should strive to know more about, and adjust off-leash time or walking routes accordingly. If we can't live without our dogs, we need to learn how be good to them without being obliviously bad for other animals.