Imagine, for a moment, an organic, biodegradable GPS that works without batteries and has never trouble connecting to a satellite.
Sounds like a good thing, right?
Well, many Yukoners may already own one or two without even knowing it.
I’ve had one for years before realizing it!
Not until we moved out into the bush did I find out that one of our dogs always knows exactly where we are in relation to the closest of our often-used routes and/or the cabin, and that this dog will lead us there on command, going the straightest, shortest way.
Over the years, we got into the habit of always telling the dogs “let’s go home” when we turned around on our walks, not really thinking that we were teaching them an actual command.
We just figured that they’d probably clue in and could possibly lead us back the way we came should we get lost, but we never put this theory to the test.
When we moved into the bush, we traded in the obstacle-free, easy walking paths around town that led you somewhere with a tangle of forest and undergrowth that most of the time offered no glimpse of any landmarks.
Going for a walk where you’d let your feet move on autopilot while mind wandered off, thinking of something else is not an option here. We found ourselves ducking, climbing and weaving through the trees, eyes on the compass, scanning the area for the best way to go, and ears pricked for animal sounds.
A four-kilometre distance turned out to be quite a hike.
As we started exploring our backyard, our way of finding good routes to places we wanted to go was rather idiotic.
I would always pick the path of least resistance, generally a game trail, which after a while would inevitably meander off into a completely different direction and usually leave us stranded in some bug-infested swamp.
My partner’s method was to plot the course on his GPS and, compass in hand, fight his way through the thickest buckbrush and deadfall so as not to divert from the route.
Needless to say, neither way really worked.
In the end, we found that combining our different approaches made for the easiest, most fun walking: follow game trails as long as they take us vaguely into the right direction, bushwhack to correct the course and hook up to another game trail.
Our dogs of course love these excursions.
It was on these expeditions that I noticed how Leshi, our oldest dog who has a colourful trapline past, seemed to want to take the lead. She’d watch us peering at the compass, walk a few paces in a measured step, turn to see if we were following.
But she wasn’t retracing our steps and we just continued our struggle, telling her to follow us. One day, stuck this time in an impenetrable fir thicket, I decided to find out if my hunch was correct and said, “Leshi, let’s go home.”
She looked at me, briefly cast a glance around her and then slowly, checking that I was coming, led the way in a straight line through firs and spruce, across an unfamiliar meadow, through more forest, until we unexpectedly emerged right behind the cabin.
She had never stopped once or seemed unsure, just plodded ahead.
This was amazing!
So amazing, in fact, that my partner Sam refused to believe it was anything but a fluke.
He then put her to the test with the GPS and compass, exclaiming all the while, “I don’t believe this! She is dead-on! How on earth can she know the way?” which Leshi commented with bored looks over her shoulder.
Our other two dogs understand the “let’s go home” command as well, but don’t have the leadership qualities to be unquestioningly relied upon — one is apt to get distracted by every fresh track out there (and there are a lot), the other one is rather wimpy and needs constant reassurance that he’s going the right way; not much use if you‘re unsure yourself.
So if you train your dog to do this, it’s probably wise to not only have a realistic idea of how reliable your dog will actually be in leading you back, but to also have the means and ability to find the way yourself.
Meanwhile Leshi has refined her internal GPS to the point that she will now lead us to the closest of our routes to take us home.
We are very happy about this because her previous straightest line approach often resembled Sam’s early attempts at route-finding with his GPS and involved much crawling under, over and through assorted vegetation.
That’s the real beauty of a doggy GPS: not only is it fun, loveable and cuddly, it even has a learning curve.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.