by Dr. Tim Hunt, DVMMost everything I have learned that is really important about life I learned from a dog. It sounds corny, but it’s true. They give back so much.
I got my first dog when I was 20 — I had always had cats, mice and guinea pigs as a child — but since then I have been making up for lost time. Today I own 40 outdoor dogs and two that live indoors. The outdoor dogs include Alaskan Huskies that love to pull sleds. I have been racing sled dogs for 17 years, but I wish I had started even earlier in life.
First and foremost, my dogs have taught me how to be patient and to let things develop rather than to push them through. When I am racing my dogs, everything has to work in harmony, all 16 dogs plus me for 80 miles at a time.
In long distance sled racing, we are often on the trail 10 or 12 hours. Then we stop to rest for about the same length of time. Mushers and dogs learn to pay attention to each others nuances, good and bad. Dogs let you know exactly how they are feeling, and they lavish attention on you. It builds your confidence.
I had never before felt as confident as I did in 2009 when I finished the most famous dog sled race of all, the 1,150-mile Iditarod in Alaska. It took me 15 days and we finished 52nd, dead last, but I was ecstatic crossing the finish line and taking the “Red Lantern,” the award given the last team to finish this grueling trek.
Lesson 1: Crawl Before You Quit — Racing a team of sled dogs cross the Alaskan wilderness I learned the meaning of endurance from my dogs. There are 25 checkpoints where you can send your gear ahead of time, but most of the time we camped in the wilderness. It was cold that year, 40 degrees below zero and 40 mph winds, but the dogs plugged on. I didn’t think I had it in me, but they showed me otherwise.
Lesson 2: Wag More, Bark Less — In a race like the Iditarod, you and your dog team experience extreme emotional ups and downs. In the race and while training, you try not to let your dogs know when you are down or they will pick up on it and it will “sour the team.” If you can maintain your composure, though, their exuberance will slowly bring you back where you need to be. I learned this when I hit a huge low point at about the sixth checkpoint. I thought my team was worn out and I had actually decided I would take them home. But when I went to feed them, they jumped up with so much enthusiasm that I realized it was me that needed more rest. I slept a couple more hours and when we hit the trail again they took off like a shot. I realized at that point that so much of racing depends on attitude — a great lesson for all of life.
Lesson 3: Pull Together — A young dog is full of exuberance and attitude but they don’t have a clue about how to direct all that energy. Working as part of a team teaches patience. We all have to be on the same speed for the gears to mesh, otherwise things fall apart. You are only as fast as the slowest dog in a team. That is really the credo with any group, whether in work or sports or other teams. The ideal is to train that slower one to go faster within limits. Sometimes physically they can’t and you have to be able to recognize that too.
Lesson 4: Love Unconditionally — This is the big one everybody thinks about when they think about dogs. It’s no coincidence that man’s best friend can’t talk. Dogs don’t offer you their opinion; they are just happy to see you all the time. And they have no trouble showing that devotion. They offer such comfort, whether you are sad or happy. Dogs are one of the only animals that truly desire our company on a full-time basis. They give such a large amount of unconditional loyalty and love for so little they ask of us. You can go to as many therapists as you want but the best therapy is a dog licking your face.
Lesson 5: Reach Out — A dog can teach a person what it’s like to be needed and how to care for another living being. This is great experience for kids or anyone who is not already a parent. Owning a dog gives a person so many terrific caring experiences that they can draw from later. Dogs also teach us to reach out to others who really need us.
Lesson 6: Love Fully — Committing to owning a dog for its life teaches you to give your heart, even when you know it will eventually hurt. Since dogs usually live 12 to 14 years, most of us outlive our canine companions. We experience great joy for years, followed by great loss. Some people never get over the loss of a dog and decide to not to get another. That’s a shame, as there are so many dogs waiting to give their owners a life of love.
Lesson 7: Look Forward — Dogs have a good memory but they live for what is going to happen next. My dogs have taught me to always enjoy the moment, but also to realize there is more to come.
Dr. Tim Hunt has practiced veterinary medicine for 22 years and raced sled dogs for 17 years. He created Dr. Tim’s Premium All Natural Pet Food to replicate the natural, wild diet of dogs and cats. Dr. Tim is recognized as an expert on all aspects of pet health and a staunch advocate for the welfare of all animals. He and his wife Mary live on 50 acres in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with four house cats, two house dogs and 40 outdoor dogs. Learn more at http://DrTims.com. Contact Dr. Tim