Another highlight of our trip to California was dropping in on the weekly HikeaBull hike in San Jose. We had corresponded with founder and organizer Lark over email in the past, but had never met in person. We were excited to go for a beautiful five-mile hike in the sunny hills of San Jose, observe the group in action, and meet some of our e-friends and blog readers.
We rarely pass up a good hike with friends, but what we were really after was the structure, policies, and techniques that make Lark’s group so successful. We dream of starting up something similar in Austin someday — just as Two Pitties in the City have done in Chicago with their new SocialBulls club. But we were so curious — are all of the dogs dog-social, or do some less socialized dogs do well also? How do they ensure that everybody is safe and happy? How do they spread the word? How many dogs come on an average hike, and do they limit the available slots? How do they determine which dogs walk where? We got all we had hoped for out of the hike, and little sunburns on our noses to boot!
The HikeaBull group meets at the trailhead each week to introduce themselves to new group members and dogs. Everybody quickly mentions whether their dog has any issues — whether it be leash reactivity, fear of strangers, a tendency to vocalize a lot, etc. This way, everybody knows what to look for and how to manage the group well. Group leaders carry special colored bandanas for any dogs who need extra space around dogs or people, which is a visual signal to other participants to respect that dog’s boundaries. Designated individuals lead the group from the front and the back to make sure everybody stays together, and communicate with walkie-talkies about any pertinent info — off leash dogs, injuries, strange turns in the trail. Whenever possible, the steadiest, most dog-social dogs lead the group, in case of wildlife, off-leash friends, or dogs on retractable leashes.
When new dogs join the group, they tend to walk wherever they feel most comfortable. But Lark said that dogs who are more nervous around big groups or are not very well socialized tend to be happiest up front. These dogs often lead at the start of their first hike, and eventually drop back into the pack over the course of the hike — or a series of hikes. This gradual integration allows dogs to socialize at their own pace, and has been hugely helpful to a number of dogs who had never been able to calmly and happily interact with dogs they don’t know. On the Sunday we attended, about 20 dogs hiked with us. During one water break, Lark counted up five or six dogs who are normally considered reactive — but all 20 dogs behaved splendidly and comfortably.
Some dogs in the group have even made friends by walking together, and now spend time playing together outside of the weekly hike!
We got to meet some real beauties on our hike, including one devastatingly handsome foster dog, one sweetie with the cutest underbite, one lovely with the most golden sunny fur, and one Lollie Wonderdog look-alike!
As a sweet bonus, we got to spend a good bit of our hike catching up with our friend Jennifer, the mastermind behind everybody’s favorite Sirius Republic collars — and her celebrity elderbelle, Chilly!
A thousand warm thank-yous to Lark, Jen, and the whole HikeaBull crew. You were so welcoming and fun that we felt like we’d been friends with each of you our whole lives. We had a blast spending our Sunday with you!