From the moment my partner, Dave Hoch, and I decided to embark on a world cycling tour in 2015, our Australian Shepherd, Sora, was a crucial member of the team. Leaving her behind wasn’t an option. Sora is part of our pack: if we go, she goes. After years of work and training, Sora—whom Dave had adopted in 2008 as a “last chance,” three-year-old project dog—had become a well-behaved adventure companion. However, she never seemed to shake her mistrust of new people and need to challenge other dogs, and we came to accept that this was just part of who she was. So, imagine my surprise when I walked out of our hotel in a Chilean Altiplano village earlier this year and saw Sora standing between two preteenagers, being vigorously petted. They said that their own Australian Shepherd had recently passed away, and Sora reminded them of their pup.
Why was I surprised? Sora is not exactly kid-friendly. Their uncontrolled movements and loud noises terrify her, and she tends to react by growling and lunging. Yet, these two young people got in her face, crowded her and petted her like she was the dog they once had. And she seemed to revel in the attention.
Who is this dog?
The answer to that question begins with what turned out to be an experiment in trust. Determined to have Sora with us on our trek, we focused on providing her with opportunities to associate strangers with positive experiences. The program relied on our understanding of Sora’s needs, explicit communication and treats—lots of treats.
From the beginning of our tour, which started in Norway, we allowed frequent, short interactions with inquisitive strangers on the street or in the homes of hosts along our route. We overcame language barriers by demonstrating how to meet Sora while avoiding direct eye contact with her; how to stand next to, not over, her; and where to pet her (under her chin). Slowly, Sora began to form positive associations with strangers. She began wagging her tail at initial greetings, and would sidle up to people and solicit their attention. As her confidence grew, so did our confidence in her.
Once we hit the Balkans, we no longer feared her reaction to humans. Dogs, however, were another matter. There, dogs roam the streets, and when a new tail comes to town, everyone wants to get in on the greetings. To assuage our anxieties , we developed a routine that worked for Sora.
We never allowed head-on meetings. Instead, other dogs got their sniff on from behind as we petted and praised her. We observed her body language: was she stiff and ready to fight, or was she wagging her tail and grunting, which signified her intent to play? As we made it possible for Sora to engage with dogs gradually and on her terms, she became more relaxed and far less combative.
In more than 15 months of travel through 20 countries, we accomplished a feat we previously thought impossible. Taking Sora out of our home environment, where encounters with new people and dogs occurred only occasionally, the series of micro-introductions while traveling transformed her into a more social, confident dog. While she still has moments of distrust, her behavior has evolved from a handicap to an occasional slip.
We have walked Sora through the streets of busy cities like Istanbul, Turkey, and Santiago, Chile, where dogs sprinted toward us in droves, and stayed in the homes of complete strangers with both children and dogs. This was made possible by exposure, being clear with others about what she needs and taking it day-by-day.
Sora sleeps at our feet each night and snuggles between us each morning. She’s a constant reminder to play, and helps us meet new friends. As we zoom by, kids squeal and adults grin. Having her with us amplifies the adventure.