Science has proven the extraordinary connection between humans and dogs, but perhaps the best evidence of the bond is easier to find—when people and their pups get outside and play.
Earlier this year, dogs made headlines for astonishing outdoor-sporting feats, much to the joy and gratitude of their human friends.
In mid-March, the story broke about a stray Tibetan mastiff-Himalayan sheepdog mutt that joined guide Don Wargowsky, of Seattle, and his climbing expedition in the early days of their month-long ascent of Baruntse, a Himalayan peak. Before the final push to the top, the dog—later named Baru, after the mountain—put in for the night at basecamp in Wargowsky’s tent. He left Baru behind, planning to rejoin her on the descent, and set out in the pre-dawn darkness. But when the climbers reached about 22,500 feet, Baru was waiting for them. She stuck with them all the way to the 23,389-foot summit, and was adopted by a Nepalese local at the end of the expedition.
On March 17, Thomas Panek, 48, of South Salem, New York, became the first blind man ever to complete a half-marathon. Taking turns leading him along the 13.1-mile course in New York City were yellow Labrador retrievers, Waffles, Wesley, and Gus. “You probably don’t want the dog who wants to cuddle by the fireplace as your running guide,” Panek said after the race. “But there are some dogs who just love to run.”
As any dog owner and outdoor enthusiast will tell you, there are also dogs who love to swim, fish, camp, hunt, compete in agility trials, and lead the way on mountain- biking rides. For every outdoor adventure—with the exception of sheer-face rock-climbing, perhaps—there is a dog that will join you. We’d like to introduce you to just a few from the Charlottesville area, and their owners, too.
The trail runner: Pippy
Breed: Terrier mix
Owner: Gordon Wadsworth
Gordon Wadsworth and his wife, Emily Hairfield, see the trails they bike through the eyes of a dog. And they owe it to their tireless terrier Pippy.
“Her love of the forest and being outdoors totally changes our mindset,” Wadsworth says. “Whatever is going on in our life, being outside, life is good.”
Wadsworth, a professional mountain biker and three time national champion, and Hairfield, also a competitive rider, had been looking for a dog to join them on mountain biking trails for about a year when they saw a notice for a wire haired female terrier-schnauzer rescue in 2014. They called the shelter in Raleigh, N.C., asked a few questions, and had to have her.
They climbed in the car on Valentine’s Day and drove seven hours through a storm to bring Pippy home.
“We knew we wanted a dog that could handle bikes and running, and terriers are good dogs for that,” Wadsworth says. “She has outshined what we expected.”
A scruffy salt-and-pepper pup standing a foot and a half tall and weighing about 30 pounds, Pippy has faithfully followed Wadsworth and Hairfield for as many as 25 miles through rugged terrain. Her average run is 8 to 12 miles, Wadsworth says, and she always shows great trail manners.
Wadsworth credits Hairfield for training Pippy to stay out of the way of her riders as they’re exploring the outdoors. Pippy checks her speed when the bikes are climbing and dutifully sneaks aside as they tilt downhill. Wadsworth says Pippy started hiking and running before making the transition to hanging with humans on wheels.
“She is a great size for it—she’s amazingly healthy,” Wadsworth says. “It’s less about the bike training than just being outside with the family. You have to have everyone in mind when you’re on the trail with an animal. That’s the goal—it’s about family.”
The go-getter: Bootlegger
Breed: Labrador retriever
Owner: Alex Toomy
Alex Toomy was duck hunting with his dog Bootlegger when the wind started “blowing like crazy,” he says. Toomy, co-owner of distillery Ragged Branch on Taylor’s Mountain, sent Boot to retrieve a duck, and the male black Labrador retriever promptly brought it back.
Another duck was down, as well, but it was in high chop in Lake Anna. Toomy was worried his loyal hunting dog might drown if he tried to retrieve it. He told Boot to stay put, and the dog obeyed.
“He is just a really intelligent dog,” Toomy says. “He can figure out what’s going on in any different situation and just go with the flow. He never goes running off.”
Boot was built for hunting, Toomy says, coming from a line of duck dogs in Delaware. He’s on the small side for a male lab at about 70 pounds, but he’s relaxed, obedient, and a great swimmer.
“I’ve hunted with other dogs that are crazy, and he respects them when they are going to retrieve,” Toomy says. “A lot of times dogs are a pain in the ass to hang around [with] when hunting—guys yelling and screaming at them. It’s very stressful. With Boot, it’s not like that.”
According to Toomy, Bootlegger knows where to position himself during a hunt, waiting along the banks prior to shots fired or sitting quietly in a blind or walking through fields. He looks to the skies as soon as he hears the sound of a safety click off, and he waits to retrieve until he’s released.
“The key to making a great hunting dog is, when he’s a puppy, keep him in with you all the time,” Toomy says. “Other- wise, you have to blow a whistle at him all the time, and he’s like a robot.”
Visitors to Ragged Branch, about 15 miles west of downtown Charlottesville, know Bootlegger for more than just being a great hunting dog. He’s the distillery’s brand ambassador and “official greeter,” Toomy says.
The tireless trio: Leica, Zeiss, and Jewels
Breed: Border collie
Owner: Lynne Brubaker
Adventures: Agility trials, exploring
For border collie owners without acres of land and hoofed animals to herd, there’s only one thing to keep the canines capable—agility courses.
Collies like photographer Lynne Brubaker’s Leica, Zeiss, and Jewels, are working dogs. According to the American Kennel Club, they’re constantly on the move, looking for something to do. They’re quick-footed, balanced, fast, and focused.
Indeed, a border collie holds the current speed record for the Westminster Kennel Club’s Master Agility Championship.
And while Brubaker’s collies aren’t record holders, they’ve held their own in competition. Leica, a small, black and white female, is 11 years old. She’s now in retirement but was “quite successful” during her career, Brubaker says. Zeiss, a large 7-year-old, is in semi-retirement from competition after injuring his shoulder. And Jewels, a 2-year-old female, has just begun “trialing.” The young red and white collie started training at 8 weeks and is tougher in temperament and beefier in body than the rest of Brubaker’s brood.
“You are constantly training the dog, learning new skills,” she says. “There are always new things to learn in agility as course design changes, and that requires different kinds of handling techniques.”
When they’re not working on agility or competing against other doggy daredevils, Leica, Zeiss, and Jewels stay fit hiking the trails around Keswick, where Brubaker has friends with farmland. They’re partial to hiking Montpelier, as well, but avoid the more difficult area hikes like White Oak Canyon. “I take them to places where I know it is really safe for them,” Brubaker says.
Brubaker takes the time to capture photos while she’s on day hikes with her collies, and the dogs take the time to stay mentally sharp and physically fit. Sometimes the lot of them will jump in Brubaker’s Airstream for overnight adventures.
“It makes life very enjoyable having a dog in it,” she says.
The fisherman’s friend: Jack
Breed: Hound mix
Owner: Brennan Gilmore
Adventure: Fishing, boating
Brennan Gilmore doesn’t have much time left with his best friend and fishing buddy, Jack. The 10-year-old hound was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer only a few weeks ago.
Gilmore’s been taking Jack on adventures since 2011, and says he plans to make the most of the coming months with his pup. “We’re going to spend this entire spring giving him as much fun as he can have,” he says.
Gilmore met Jack at the SPCA in Rockbridge County. He was looking for a traveling companion before taking off for the Central African Republic. For two years, Jack prowled the dangerous jungles and streets of Bangui alongside Gilmore, who worked at the embassy there.
The 70-pound dappled hound dog was happy to be home when he and Gilmore returned to Virginia, his owner says. Gilmore, who runs Clean Virginia and competes in bass tournaments in his spare time, has taken Jack hunting, camping, and hiking over the years. But their favorite activity has always been fishing. “He prefers the fly fishing because we’re out moving around,” Gilmore says.
Jack also happens to know his way around a hootenanny. Gilmore dabbles in bluegrass music, and Jack has become a talented singing dog.
Gilmore says he spent a good amount of time training Jack while the pair patrolled Central Africa, but mostly he’s been a natural for outdoor sports. He no longer wades into the fishing hole to scare off Gilmore’s fish, he’s figured out the grass mats on tidal pools aren’t good for standing, and he’s learned the hard way that a slick dock can send him careening into the water after jumping off the boat. He even mostly stays away from lures as Gilmore sends them arching back and forth at the end of his fly rod.
“He’s super chill and used to being around fish,” Gilmore says. “He knows his way around the boat.”
Gilmore says he couldn’t ask for a better companion in the outdoors.
“Being out in the natural world with a dog, it draws your attention to things you wouldn’t otherwise see. He is constantly searching the woods for interesting smells,” Gilmore says. “He is definitely my best friend.”
The boater and the hiker: Aspen and Koa
Breed: Golden retriever
Owner: Samantha Brooke
Adventure: Kayaking, hiking
Samantha Brooke immediately pegged her male golden retriever, 6-year-old Koa, for a boater. She started putting him in her kayak when he was just a puppy, trying to get him used to the feel.
But from 6 months on, Koa couldn’t sit still in the boat. He’d stand up, wobble around, shake the whole kayak.
Brooke’s 65-pound female retriever Aspen, on the other hand, came to boating naturally. Brooke was camping with friends in western Virginia when she tried to leave the now 3-year-old pup on shore as she kayaked out to take pictures. Aspen, Koa’s half sister from the same mother, wasn’t about to be left alone.
“She started racing after me,” Brooke says. “She likes to swim but is not the strongest. I thought she was going to drown. As soon as she got in the kayak, she was content. That was day one of her kayaking story.”
Brooke says she, her husband, and their 6-month-old son had their eye on goldens from the beginning, looking for dogs that would be good with kids and willing to go on long runs. Aspen and Koa have fit the bill as far as the family’s concerned, but they “are not big into endurance sports,” Brooke says.
Aspen and Koa are fine with some light hiking, their owner says, often going as many as six miles, but Aspen’s true love is the kayak. Whereas Brooke tried to entertain Koa on the boat with toys and bones, Aspen sits or lies quietly while they glide along the water.
Brooke says Aspen and Koa have made ideal companions for her lifestyle as a full-time PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant and part-time photographer. After a long week of consulting, sometimes on remote projects, Brooke says the chance to head outdoors with her pup pals is the ideal release.
“With my dogs and my son—it allows that forced downtime,” she says. “In the world of consulting, that reset is very much needed, and it allows you to set that boundary.”
The right dog for the job
Looking to have some adventures with your canine compadre?
Make sure your pup is a good fit for your favorite activity.
So you’re into downward facing dogs, and your dog’s into lying around. Doga is definitely for you and your best bud. If you’re more interested in the “dog as prop” style of the practice (some folks prefer to pose actively with their dogs) the docile, zen-like bulldog is the perfect partner.
Frisbee fetch: Whippet
Whippets hold most of the world’s records for Frisbee fetch, and it’s no wonder—the American Kennel Club says they’re exceptionally athletic due to their deep chest, trim waist, long neck, and slim legs. In other words, if you want a good disc dog, you must whippet.
Hiking: Burmese Mountain Dog
Dogs love hiking—except they just think of it as walking. Depending on the difficulty of the hikes you’re planning, a Burmese mountain dog might be the perfect companion. They excel on short hikes through rough and rocky terrain, according to the veterinarians at PetMD.
Newfoundlands are in the AKC’s working group, and the breed experts say they’re just as comfortable “working” in water as on land. The large dogs originally come from the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, the area from which Labrador retrievers also hail, and were bred to tow ship lines in harbors.
Trail Running: Weimaraner
Most dogs love to run, but each breed has its specialty. Sure, greyhounds are lightning fast, but they’re not ideal for the trail.
For long, steady runs, the AKC says the Weimaraner’s a winner, owing to its high energy and medium, muscled build.—S.G.