Gazette Vet: Walking in the Woods

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The author’s dog Boone enjoying a walk in the woods. Photo: John Andersen.

One thing I love about my job is that the majority of dogs that I care for are completely spoiled.  A great dog owner doesn’t have to be athletic, smart, or gentle.  They just have to love their dog.  Dogs are very intuitive and they know when they are secure.  I think that is one of the most important gifts you can give your dog—a secure, forever home.  

But while I’m on the topic of giving gifts, one of the most profound gifts you can give your dog—and yourself—is going on a one-on-one hike with him/her/them in the woods.

With busy work life and family life, and for many of us a busy recreation life, our dogs are usually swept along with the business of the main family pack.  We’ll bring the dogs for a family trip and a family hike, but how often do you get your devoted friend out in the woods for some epic solo time together?

When I was still living the bachelor life in veterinary school at Virginia Tech, I got my first dog.  Her name was Kaya and she was an adorable mutt from the Roanoke County SPCA.  As they all do, she will remain a special dog in my life’s memory book.  As a student, I had plenty of pockets of free time and one of my most consistent activities would be to take Kaya out into the nearby National Forest to go hiking.  I had no fitness agenda or anything like that, I just loved spending a few hours in the woods with my best friend.  When I picture these memories, I always think of the fall season, which is by far the best season to be out there in the woods.  We would walk for hours – me keeping a steady pace on the trails, and her running loops around me through the leaves, the brush, and the trees.  

This of course sounds a bit corny, writing about me and my best first dog going on romantic walks in the woods, but it was a true bonding experience and somewhat life-altering in teaching me a new appreciation for being in the woods, being in the mountains, and being with dogs.  

Even now, with a busy career and a family, I make it a point to every once in a while get away with my dogs on a hike in the mountains where it’s just me and them.  We typically go to Mint Springs Valley Park, our little gem of a park right here in Crozet.  We head into the woods as a pack.  I’m the leader with my job simply to keep the route and keep the pace.  My yellow lab Boone is the calm veteran, saving his energy for only the worthiest smells and most worthy chases.  Our black lab girl Ruby is pretty much the spaz—she is completely overwhelmed with the forest and its sights and smells.  There is just something about being a part of this imperfect pack of beings traveling up the mountain.  My dogs aren’t complaining about a thing, they are so happy to be present.  I have no one to complain to, so I just take their lead and enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of the woods, and my blood pressure settles to where it should be if all were calm and perfect in the world.  

Sometimes the simplest activities teach us the most.  I think that the quick walks around the block with our dogs are about all we can do on most days, and that’s ok, I understand what it’s like to be busy.  However, it is very easy never to make the time to put yourself in environments and scenarios where you can really unwind and meditate or just let your thoughts wander.  

So, as we head into another amazing Virginia fall, take some time when the opportunity presents itself to excuse yourself, and your dog(s), and head into the woods.  For you Crozetians, I’m talking Mint Springs Park.  Or drive to the top of Jarmans Gap Road and go hike on the AT.  Or drive out to Sugar Hollow and hike up the North Moormans River Trail.  Or head back behind the dog park at Crozet Park and do some miles on the great Crozet Connector trail.  Or go find all the new trails through Old Trail.  

Follow your dog’s lead and fully embrace and enjoy being outside as if it’s the best thing ever.  Which, when you do, it pretty much is. 

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