What I've Learned from Hiking with My Dog

It took me a long time to finally have a dog of my own, not for a lack of desire or love of dogs, but because growing up, my family was confined to small apartments and spaces in which a pet simply did not comfortably fit our plans. I dreamt of one day having a golden retriever (yes, I was specific); having learned colloquial English phrases on “Full House” and viewing the Tanners as the quintessential all-American family (everything mine wasn’t), I felt strongly that the first step into assimilation would be a golden retriever like Comet. True story. It took a while and lots of Americanizing, but at 29, Summer marched into our newly purchased first house and made it a home.

Summer has been our hiking buddy pretty much since she was cleared by her vet to be in nature. She loves the water, leaves, sticks and mud, and she’s happiest when she can get in at least three miles of walking. So, when we made plans to head to Asheville for the weekend, whether Summer would be joining us wasn’t a question; she was part of the plans and of our itinerary. Our trip fittingly began with a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Graveyard Fields (a misleading name given its beauty), where 3.2 miles at an elevation of nearly 6,000 ft. were made longer and more strenuous than planned due to eroded trails, rough terrain, steep mountainside climbs and lots and lots of stone-bottom streams – quite a diversion from our routine flat coastal walks. “No trail? No problem,” Summer seemed to think, as she forged our path, always looking back and waiting for us to follow suit.

Once we finally made it to the top of the Upper Falls and back down to the bottom, mud on our butts and hands, laughing, out of breath and overcome with awe for Mother Nature, per usual, it dawned on me: I have so much to learn from my dog companion. Everyone who has or has had a dog knows this to be true: we welcome these fur-babies into our homes only to find they’re the ones really taking care of us in a deep, touching way not known to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. 

Here, a list of what I’ve learned from hiking with Summer – translated into human terms, of course.

Leap into What Scares You
Dogs know no fear – at least not the type of crippling fear that often brings us, humans, to a sudden stop. We think and overthink things to a fault, and in failing to leap into opportunities, we’re left missing out on the beauty of what’s waiting on the other side. That’s not to say dogs don’t know consequences (ask anyone who has trained a dog just how powerful positive reinforcement is), but they’re willing to take that leap of faith, knowing that the worst that can happen is that they’ll end up a little dirty, knowing not to do that again. In the meantime, the adventure is the journey’s currency, and Summer adventured hard this weekend. No regrets.

Get (Really) Dirty
When did we stop jumping into puddles and playing in the dirt? Take me back to the days – the everyday for the outdoorsy dog. When Summer is having a good time, the elements can’t hold her back. Bring on the mud, the rain, the snow and the piles of leaves and sticks! There’s nothing a good bath can’t scrub off, and you’ll be thankful for the therapeutic powers of nature’s bounty after a day in the woods.

Drink from the Stream
Okay, hear me out on this one. I’m not proposing you go fill up your cup from whatever nearby body of water, but I am encouraging you to tap into a fresh perspective. Summer knows not to drink salt water when we’re at the beach (not that she hasn’t before, but she learned her lesson), yet at her first glance of the “pristine streams” of the Yellowstone Prong (North Carolina, not Wyoming), she dove right in, taking one sip, then slurping up more of the water that once quenched the thirst of early adventurers and animals alike. Seeing her that refreshed and happy, I felt I had nothing to lose, so I took some water into my hand, sipped it, encouraged Sean to do the same, and – marveling at the water’s crispness – proceeded to fill up our water bottles. Thanks for the tip, Summer!

Trust Your Human(s)
Summer depends on us for everything (she’s a dog, after all), and she’s happiest when she’s with her pack. She’s sensitive to our moods, and she knows to follow our lead on most things (except for when she’s being a stubborn retriever). When on the trail, she never ventures too far off, and if she does, she knows to come right back the moment we call. She trusts our commands and knows we’ll keep her safe (and fed), so she does just about anything we ask her to – even those embarrassing things like “shake” and “kiss” and “boink!” During our hike, we unexpectedly came to a pretty steep descent that required some strategic maneuvering. I crab-crawled it; Summer couldn’t, so she waited to see what we’d do to get her down (we couldn’t). Sean waited at the bottom, calling her, while I encouraged her from the top. Looking down, then looking up, then looking down again, she seemed to think, “Okay, I trust you guys; here I come,” and she slid right down from the scary jump. The lesson for us here? Surround yourself with humans who encourage you, who’ll be there, who’ll take care of you (and feed you, from time to time) and whose words you can follow in any given situation, from the embarrassing life moments to the uncertain and scary ones. Make those humans your pack, and keep them close.

 

 Summer and I making our trek through streams as we headed to the Upper Falls (March 2017, Asheville, North Carolina)

Summer and I making our trek through streams as we headed to the Upper Falls (March 2017, Asheville, North Carolina)