Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 6, 2012

Luke the Canine Trail Guide

An unexpected host

When our group arrives at Brier Island Lodge on Nova Scotia’s southwest coast, we are feeling sensory overload, an experience common to this spectacular province. With an hour’s grace before dinner, we all go our own ways. That’s when I first meet Luke.

Strolling past the door to the front desk, I don’t initially notice him but I sense that I am being watched. Turning, I see him waiting patiently — for me to respond. True to the culture of peace and privacy of his island home, Luke allows me some space, a few moments alone to appreciate the beauty of the view.

When I greet him with the slightly overanxious “Hello!” that pet-loving travellers often communicate, Luke rises in one graceful movement, walks purposefully towards me, and places his soft muzzle in my hand. I could not have wished for a better welcome to Brier Island.

In what I assume is his role as the lodge’s canine meeter and greeter, Luke responds to my overtures most hospitably. He allows me to pose him and photograph him in the warm tones of the imminent sunset. Graciously accommodated by a skilled member of the hospitality industry, I am not yet aware however of the full extent of Luke’s talents.

A Nova Scotian dog

One of Canada’s most beautiful and tranquil maritime provinces, Nova Scotia is celebrated for a lifestyle that emphasizes community and inter-relationships. This is especially evident on Brier Island. Just 6.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, the island is an ecological treasure where many unique species are found, among them rare wild orchids. Its dramatic sea and landscapes are an arcadian dream for hikers and walkers, especially in the company of a canine friend. Its trails are easy to moderate, and meander through unspoiled forests and along the rugged coastline. Stunning panoramas of the mighty Bay of Fundy and sea-sculpted shores are always impending.

Brier Island is also an industrious fishing community where the traveller with a penchant for the freshest of seafood can savour culinary delights. Like many natural venues it is an environment that is best shared with a highly sentient and amiable companion — like Luke.

The discerning host

After an ambrosial seafood dinner, we retire to the lounge where June Swift, local librarian, botanist, and naturalist shows slides of the flora and fauna of the island. A pragmatic and engaging person with a deep appreciation for the abundant resources of the island’s ecosystem, June also displays a heightened sensory awareness. Her photographs reveal an innate talent; the smallest details and sensations do not escape her notice. Creating an atmosphere in which our curiosity and senses are awakened, she establishes a quiet bond with us. But she is not alone in doing so.

Luke has begun to work the room. Silently and unobtrusively he moves among us, touching us lightly with his nose and taking each of us in with a gaze that is comprehensive but not intrusive. It is as if he is getting to know us individually, and as a group. In the morning I will learn what his purposeful behaviour was for.

A fine example and role model

Luke is a four-year-old German Shepherd. Both his parents were black and tan shepherds, but he happens to be white. (The odds are in the thousands that such a colouring would result.) Around his neck is a bandana in the distinctive blue and green Nova Scotia tartan. As I learn later from his owner Ray Tutor, Luke is an exceptionally tolerant and loving animal. Children who visit the lodge take to him immediately, and he takes pleasure in their kissing and hugging him. He loves a good game of hide and seek, but it’s impossible to hide from Luke. Especially fond of infants, he likes to lick their ears. Social interaction seems especially intrinsic to his personality. According to Ray, Luke sees himself as a general overseer not only of the lodge’s guests but also of the small petting zoo the lodge maintains. He is very protective of Miss Maloney the chicken, Ruby the goat, Marie the sheep, and Miss Piggy, but he does not dominate them. He visits their compound regularly to check that all is well.

Ray has discovered that Luke also plays another very specialized role, that of ad hoc counsellor and mentor. Numerous times guests of the lodge have arrived shortly after the loss of a beloved pet and Luke is the first animal they allow themselves to interact with since their loss. As a surrogate pet he fulfills a need that travellers may often overlook when planning their itineraries. He is an “Everydog,” and a constant in the day to day life of Brier Island.

Luke the heir and successor

Luke is a third-generation Brier Island Lodge canine host. Although not a biological descendant of his predecessors Teddy (an Akita) and Dudley (a poodle), he is indeed a member of their very special chosen family. Teddy and Dudley were partners and when they came to Brier Island they bonded initially through hunting mice. When Teddy died, Ray saw an ad in the paper about a month-old German Shepherd pup who was being threatened by a Rottweiler. Luke was “rescued” and brought to Brier Island. Although all three dogs were not abused in ways we are accustomed to using the term, each was found in an environment that was unsuitable to his individual needs. But it was Dudley who became the first canine trail guide and it was he who trained Luke.

And when Dudley also died, after nearly 20 years of service, he passed his legacy on to Luke. (On his death Dudley was remembered by members of the island community who had a bonfire on the shoreline in his memory. A memorial attesting to the contributions of Teddy and Dudley to Brier Island is being built on one of the trails.) Today, Luke carries on the tradition of his brothers.

Behavioural signs

It is early morning and a thick, soft fog overlays the island creating an ambiance of stillness and mystery. Somewhere in the distance a doleful fog horn sounds. We gather in the courtyard next to the barn and wait — for Luke. Arriving with our leader Randy, Luke is already in a state of enthused preparedness. He obviously knows the ritual and has seen well in advance the signs that he has another special duty to perform today. The red leash Randy is carrying is of course the catalytic signal that the procession is to begin. Randy attaches it to Luke’s collar although when Luke takes the leash in his mouth there is no doubt who is really being led. With a bound, Luke heads towards the woods. We follow a bit clumsily; it is not just the early morning fog that blurs the vision of this group of city folk.

Reaching the entrance to the path in the woods, Luke stops and looks up at Randy who, interpreting the signal, undoes the leash. Luke looks at the rest of us, then enters the woods. We follow. The path winds through closely-set trees, dense undergrowth, and occasionally over semi-rough and boggy terrain. The group starts to spread out along the trail, some of us stopping to take photographs or to make notes. I am near the front of the pack and always have Luke in sight. He has set a no-nonsense pace but not an impossible one. His ears focus intently on what is happening all around him; and every now and then one of them turns in our direction but Luke does not look back.

At a fork in the path there is a piece of paper on the ground anchored by a rock. One of our group has gone ahead earlier and the note and an arrow announces “I have gone this way.” Luke sniffs the note and heads off in the direction indicated. The path weaves through the trees and eventually emerges onto the rugged coastline where the fog is less thick but hangs over land and sea like heavy grey cotton batten. The other member of our party is sitting on a rock looking out to sea. Luke stops and waits. She clambers off the rock and comes to meet us, whereupon Luke sets off again.

The path becomes more rigorous, climbing up and down and around the jagged shoreline. Luke adjusts his pace to match ours and occasionally stops and looks back, as if he were counting heads. Assured that all are present and accounted for, he continues.

Some time later in a post-hike discussion, Ray makes reference to Brigadoon, the enchanted village on the Scottish moors that materializes from the mists of time every 100 years for a single day. He comments, “Even though you can walk the perimeter of Brier Island in 7-8 hours, it is the type of place that takes a lifetime to experience.” Our hike on Brier Island has a similar sense of timelessness.

Bonding

I am aware of the evolutionary theory of the dog as genetically an adolescent wolf who bonded with his co-hunter Man in prehistoric times. But there is nothing adolescent about Luke; and he is neither subordinate nor commanding. This “walk on the wild side” with Luke is a mutually beneficial and equitable arrangement, for human and dog alike. His shepherding skills are certainly goal-oriented, but the trek he is taking us on feels as much like a process as it does an event. Far removed from our city lives, we accompany Luke into a realm of raw nature. Human and dog bond again, as we have for eons.

The uniqueness of the environment in which Luke lives and works is specific to his (and Teddy and Dudley’s) needs, just as it is to the humans who live on Brier Island. It is an alternative lifestyle choice — and need. Unfortunately many dogs have little choice in such matters; they are dependent on others to determine the best environment in which they or their particular breed will thrive. The same could apply to many humans I suppose.

As we proceed along the path, I become aware of how much more in tune Luke is with the surroundings than we are. This of course is due to his experience and superior sensory capabilities, but it is also something he likes to do and therefore an activity in which he becomes fully engaged — on all levels.

We reach the top of a cliff below which crashing waves resonate relentlessly on kelp-covered boulders. Suddenly, to our right a partridge hidden in a bit of scrub wood takes flight, its wings beating frantically. Luke dashes off into the thicket. We call his name while looking nervously around us. Then he re-appears. Is he smiling? Was this a joke? We speak to him in conciliatory and relieved tones. Luke checks us out and proceeds.

We were told this morning that Luke would be taking us to Seal Cove, and on this heavily veiled day the rough path to our destination seems quite indiscernible from time to time, and not without its hazards. And yet Luke creates a quiet a sense of security. Later we learn from Ray that on one hike to Seal Cove, a member of the group fell and that Luke refused to leave the person until help arrived.

Proceeding along the seacoast, we have been listening for the distinctive barking of seals but have heard nothing so far. Great black shorebirds fly in and out of the fog. The path rises, falls again, and then rises once more to a promontory from which the wind and now light rain push against us. Luke stops, sits, and goes no farther. We assume that we have arrived at Seal Cove, but there are no seals today. As if reading our disappointment, Luke jumps up again and runs off down a secondary path into the woods. We move quickly after him. We don’t want to lose him. In the midst of a rain-soaked wood, we come face to face with two men.

They are biologists who are spending their holidays camped in these woods, banding and releasing migrating birds. They enter their findings in an international database that monitors the state of the bird population along this flyway. They are as surprised to see us as we are them. One of them says to me, “How did you find us?” Then, catching himself, he says, “Oh I know. Luke told you where we were.”

As North Americans become more conscious of the health benefits of regular exercise, walking, jogging, and hiking with their dogs is becoming the activity of choice for many. For pet retailers, this is also an educational and marketing opportunity.

Many new, innovative, and practical products are available for dog owners who exercise with their canine friends. Collapsible water bowls, for example, are an essential piece of equipment. Specially designed dog packs suited to some breeds are also useful for carrying other necessities such as first aid kits, grooming tools, towels, and food. A hands-free leash that attaches to a harness around the human’s waist is especially useful to joggers and when doing serious hiking over rough terrain where hand holds are required. Well-designed dog coats for inclement weather are important as dogs also risk hypothermia, and depending on the breed and terrain canine boots may be required. For the serious hiker, there are even dog tents and portable beds. Reflective safety devices and guides to hiking with dogs are important products for the general public.

However, the most important advice that the pet retailer can offer the customer is to always consult a veterinarian regarding the suitability of the breed and the health of the individual dog before beginning any human-canine exercise program.

For more information on Brier Island, Luke, and his friends, visit:

Brier Island Lodge

Brier Island

and

For those serious hikers who wish to do so with their dogs, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/Traildog for important information.

To plan a trip to Brier Island, consult the Nova Scotia website at www.novascotia.com

Post Script

Sadly, I learned recently that Luke has also died. I offer this article as a tribute to all those animals who play a very special role in our lives.

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