Face-to-face with the foreigner

An 'Off-Leash' encounter in the backcountry quashes the stereotypes

Being motorized can ease the effort of accessing the backcountry but a breakdown can make for a long walk home.

Being motorized can ease the effort of accessing the backcountry but a breakdown can make for a long walk home.

Dan Mills

It has been my observation, that one of the traits we dogs share with our human pack mates is a highly evolved sense of territoriality.  Both of our species have an instinctive compulsion to define the borders of our space and defend it against interlopers.

Heck, as a dog, I can’t even go for a walk without persistently sniffing for the scent of trespassers and cocking a leg to re-establish my ownership. Humans too, feel compelled to build fences, put up “No Trespassing” signs and even fight wars to protect what they see as their turf. Being territorial, it seems, is just in our nature.

As a dog, I have been blessed with a fine nose that allows me to not only scent for past infractions of trespass by other dogs — I can actually examine other canines up close and personal and determine their intentions. A couple of quick circles while sniffing each other’s nether regions can usually determine what level of aggression to expect. This olfactory fact finding, more often than not, de-escalates the situation, allowing cooler noses to prevail.

You humans on the other hand, with your atrophied sense of smell, and aversion to public nether region investigation, have had to come up with other ways to tell the good guys from the bad guys. An example of one of these human-designed identification strategies is the red and white licence plate.

I have noted that two-leggers who make their home on the west side of the Rocky Mountains display blue and white plates on their motorized vehicles. Those who reside immediately on the east side of this mountain range display red and white plates. Thus, when a British Columbian arrives at his favourite fishing hole and finds a truck with red and white licence plates already parked there – well, let’s just say if humans had hackles they would be in the standing position.

Some hominids even utilize the displaying of red and white plates to immediately determine that the owners of said plates not only are intruders, but that they have a predisposition for littering, building their campfires too large, playing their music too loud and suffering from a lack of judgement, respect and driving skill. And all this, with out a single sniff of a single nether region. It all seems just a little too “tarred with the same brush” to me.

Pictured: Different plate, same tribe.

As a counter point, I submit the following as an example where the licence plate assumption proved less than accurate. Dog Jasper (my newest pack mate) and I were accompanying my dude and his friend Jamie to the trailhead in our side-by-side ATV.  We were all giddy with anticipation for what was to be a three-day backpack trip into the wilderness. Our joy was snuffed out however, when 22 kilometres away from our truck, the side-by-side suffered an irreparable mechanical malfunction.

Despite a diligent attempt by the humans to reanimate the ATV, it looked like we were facing a very long walk in over 30 degree Celsius heat. Then I heard it; the putt-putt-putt of another ATV. The sound of bugles heralding the arrival of the cavalry would not have sounded sweeter.

Soon, two men — one younger, one older — pulled into sight. As it turned out they were a father and son, enjoying the great outdoors and each other’s company. Our unsuspecting saviours were piloting a side-by-side similar to ours, except theirs was blue, in considerably better running condition and brazenly displayed a red and white licence plate on its front bumper.

When the younger man – who had a slightly military air about him, due in part no doubt, to the array of automatic weapons tattooed on his well-muscled arms – politely asked, “How’s it goin.’” My human explained that our problem was that we couldn’t get it “goin’” at all.

Now keep in mind, these interlopers from the wrong side of the Rockies had travelled a fair distance to play here in our mountains. When they had set out that morning, whatever plans they had had definitely not included wasting their limited time coming to the aid of a couple mechanically challenged locals. That however — with a can-do, no-problem attitude — is exactly what they did.

Being towed 22 kilometres, downhill on an extremely rough road turned out to be a challenge all its own. But after several snapped winch cables, a loss of brakes due to overheating, and dust, lots of dust, the boys with the red and white plates got us safely back to our truck.

There is another evolutionary behaviour that dogs, humans and many other critter share.  It is one that at first glance, seems counter-productive to the advancement of one organism over another, yet is practiced through out the animal kingdom.  It is called reciprocal altruism.

It is the term used to explain why some birds will put themselves at risk to protect nests that are not their own.  It is why a gopher will give a shrill alarm call to warn others of a circling hawk, even though he is drawing dangerous attention to himself by doing so. It explains why a raven will call loudly when he finds a carcass to feed on and alert other hungry ravens even though he could keep the bounty to himself.  It explains why sometimes sharing isn’t just the right thing to do; it is the best thing to do. It could actually provide long-term benefit if — and it’s a big if — the unselfish individual putting himself at risk, can count on others to do the same for him.

Reciprocal altruism: something to keep in mind the next time you are tempted to judge someone by the colour of his or her licence plate.  Remember that by sharing the wealth on this side of the rocks, perhaps you will be given something just as precious in return.  Perhaps a young man with tattoos of automatic weapons on his arms and a can-do-no-problem attitude, will dawn a uniform and put himself at risk, not just for his province but for our country.

Photos and word processing by Dan Mills