What I Learned in the Woods

Elizabeth - Alum Bridge, West Virginia
Entered on December 30, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

Every day about mid-afternoon, my dogs begin their campaign. There are three of them, and they tag-team me. One after the other they come into my office and stand at my side with hopeful eyes. Their intelligent expressions seem to ask, “Now?”

“Not yet,” I tell each of them in turn. “I’m working. Later.”

Minutes pass. I finish a conference call, answer a few e-mails. One by one, my canine companions return. “Now?” they ask mutely. “How about now?”

Eventually I can no longer ignore their pleading looks and the diminishing daylight. I put aside my work, take up my walking stick, and my pack and I head off to explore the wooded hills behind our West Virginia home.

While my dogs are always eager for a walk, there are some days I am not. But whenever we don’t walk—on those days when I am too busy, or the weather is too nasty, or some other human concern keeps us housebound—their dejected expressions are almost too much to bear. So some days I decide we will just take a short walk. A short walk is better than no walk, right? But at the first intersection of trails, where I am planning to turn around and head home, I find my friends have already started the next leg of the hike. They go about five yards, then turn and look at me. “Okay?” their eyes ask. “A little farther–Okay?” And so a 20-minute walk stretches to 30 minutes, which becomes 40 minutes, which eventually evolves into a race to get home before dark.

For years I have thought of this daily ritual as something I do for my dogs; I have only recently realized that it is also something my dogs do for me. In their own way, they encourage me to get away from the computer and see the real world. Because of them, I have seen the first mayapples poking through the leafy forest floor in spring; I have noticed how the late afternoon sun lights the trees on the neighboring ridge; I have watched a ring snake warming himself on a perfectly flat stone.

I benefit physically too. The exercise helps me maintain a healthy weight and cholesterol level. My blood pressure is the envy of every nurse who checks it. Best of all, no matter how sluggish I feel when we first set out, I always return feeling happier and more energetic.

I have come to believe that our daily walks are as much about my dogs taking care of me, as they are about me taking care of my dogs. Maybe dogs don’t understand the dangers of high blood pressure, but they know everyone needs to get outside and sniff around once in a while. I believe my relationship with my dogs is truly symbiotic: I walk the dogs and the dogs walk me. And we’re all better off because of it.