What We Owe Our Dogs After the Pandemic

Max (left) and Corina (right) of @kffdogs enjoy a recent outing.


By Adam Searing

I never had a dog when I was growing up. For years, we left Chapel Hill to spend summers in the U.K. where my father taught at a university, and a dog was too much of a complication. Even so, other people’s dogs always seemed to like me. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that while I was in graduate school here at UNC, a dog did finally appear in my home. Katie was a mix of black Labrador and something else, skinny and nervous from an early life of abuse. I lived in a shack deep in the woods outside of town and so was seen as a natural adoption candidate.

Back then I was starting to ride mountain bikes all the time, and it was shortly after Katie arrived that I realized I had gained a new canine riding companion. Mountain biking and dogs can go together, although my sense is not as much as they used to. These days, there are often so many more people out on the trails and, as a consequence, so many more distractions that it really takes an exceptional beast to be a regular riding companion. But back then or now, Katie-the-dog would qualify. She possessed the key qualities of a good mountain biking dog: the athletic ability to run for miles, a keen sense of where her owner and other riders were, even while flying down a trail, and responsive enough to voice commands to keep her out of trouble. One memorable trip, we traveled to the Tsali trail system in western North Carolina adjacent to Lake Fontana. On the day I did 20 miles of loops, Katie tore along with me for every mile.

Over the last year, our dogs – mountain biking or not – have assumed bigger roles in our lives. We are spending more time at home, living in a stressful and uncertain environment, and walking outside is one of the safest activities we can do. No wonder animal shelters everywhere are being emptied out as more families adopt animals seemingly uniquely suited for these times. Indeed, many dogs who in previous years might have been seen as not adoptable are finding good homes. Some health policy friends of mine in the Washington, D.C., area (follow them on Twitter at the popular @kffdogs) adopted a much older canine, Corina, whose inquiring gaze led her to a new home, a nice soft bed, hikes at Great Falls and plenty of needed care and attention. Dogs have been a huge help to so many families over the last year.

The current dog in our family, Bear, certainly fits into this category (you can follow his adventures, too, on Twitter @gooddogbear). He’s a 70-pound black mix of Labrador and some sort of hunting dog who, after being found on the side of the road by some vet friends, came to our house seven years ago for a “test visit” and never left. While riding is not Bear’s favorite activity, hiking in the woods certainly is. His humans find that spending time slogging on trails though the mud with him is stress relieving for them as well. Consequently, during the pandemic, he has enjoyed miles of hiking almost every day in swamp or forest and is lucky his black fur hides much of the mud he is often liberally sprinkled with.

The author’s dog, Bear, looking down disused tracks on the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail near the Eno River.

As we start to see the end of this pandemic, we all realize that some changes we have made in our lives are not going to go away. After the 1918 flu pandemic, the disappearance of the communal drinking cup was one of those small changes. Who knows what changes will endure for us? Whatever change happens, I hope we can remember how helpful our dogs have been during this terrible time and make sure that their lives going forward reflect our appreciation for the trust and companionship they gave to us. That means making more time for them, whether it is mountain bike rides, hikes or just playing at the dog park. It also means remembering what a help to our collective mental health they have been and making sure their own health doesn’t suffer as we move back to more normal routines. Whether it is a new toy or a daily game of playing fetch in the yard, dogs are remarkably easy to please. We just have to remember our debt and pay it forward.

Adam Searing is a lifetime resident of Chapel Hill, a mountain bike coach and attorney. He can be reached at adamsearing@gmail.com.

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