My best adventure buddy.

When Your Best Adventure Buddy Grows Old

I can’t think of a single time in my life I’ve been without animals. I grew up with cats, lizards, snakes and all sorts of critters. In college I had a strange menagerie: a Maine Coon shelter cat, an elderly rescue iguana and two rescue ferrets. Even stranger was that they all seemed to enjoy each other’s company!

Somehow the one animal missing from my life had always been a dog. I guess I felt my nomadic, studio apartment lifestyle simply didn’t qualify me for dog ownership.

A few years after moving to Seattle, I was living with a boyfriend in a fixer-upper in Seward Park, slowly discovering hiking and the outdoors. I remember the first time I mentioned getting a dog as an adventure partner. “Huh” was his response. Ever the optimist, I took that as a yes and immediately started operation “Find a Dog”.

I had no idea one random visit to the animal shelter would change my life forever.

Bringing home Jake.

I will always remember the day I met Jake. Sometimes chance works in your favor.

I was about to walk into a client’s office in Bellevue for a meeting when I found it had been cancelled. As I drove home, I saw a sign for the Bellevue Humane Society and made a quick detour. A volunteer asked me some questions about what kind of dog I was looking for. I didn’t have a clue! I was an experienced pet owner with absolutely zero knowledge about dogs and I really wasn’t prepared to bring one home that day. I reminded myself I was only perusing.

“You look athletic,” she said. “Do you run? Hike?” I told her yes and she immediately smiled. “We just got this adorable 9 month old Black Lab the other day and he has so much energy! He’d do great with an athletic owner like you! He needs training but he’s a sweetheart! Wait a few minutes and I’ll bring him out.”

Crazy Jake dog burst through the door, tail wagging and gangly legs flying in all directions. I think he wiped out at least 3 times trying to cross the tile floor to tell me hello. He gave everyone kisses and was completely out of control. I loved him immediately.

The very first picture I took of Jake as soon as I got him home. Lurking under that cute exterior was an uncontrollable, energetic monster!

The volunteer handed me a tennis ball and a frisbee, then accidentally forgot about us. Jake and I played for nearly an hour in the back lot of the property. Every time I threw the ball or the frisbee he caught it and brought it right back. I didn’t even have to tell him what to do!

One adoption fee and some paperwork later I was driving home with a Jake dog.

They say the dog picks you. I can hardly argue with that.  It was clear Jake knew exactly what he was doing. Our energy was a perfect match.

I got home, opened the door, and in exploded a black fur ball of craziness. I think my boyfriend nearly had a heart attack. “What the hell is that!?”

“It’s a dog!!” I told him!

Raising Crazy Jake.

Jake and I had a rough start. He had pretty much been abandoned as a pup, chained in a garage before he was weaned from his mother with virtually no contact with people. He suffered separation anxiety that made it hard for me to leave him home alone while I worked. It’s no wonder he was so wild and insecure. He simply wanted to be loved.

Photo: Kevin McHugh. One of my favorite pictures of Jake! His energy for life is pretty apparent, haha.
See a pattern?? This photo cracks me up every time. Everyone else stopping to take a break, Jake doing his 200mph frenzy.

I tried to walk him but with no training and no leash skills, he dragged me all over the place.

I tried to run with him. He cut me off, wrapping his leash around my legs and sending me careening to the pavement. I think I still have a scar from that one!

The next day I leaned over him to snap on his leash for another run attempt and he excitedly jumped up to meet me, hitting me square in the nose and breaking it. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d find out firsthand how hard Jakes head is!

We managed to get kicked out of not one but two puppy training classes. Jake was so crazy that he’d get every other dog riled up to mach 3. The poor instructors had no choice but to refund our money, shaking their heads apologetically and telling me that perhaps group training wasn’t the right match for us.

A few months later my boyfriend and I broke up. The relationship had been doomed for a while, but I do think Jake helped speed up the process. My boyfriend just couldn’t deal with his energy. Or mine.

We moved out and I bought my very own condo. My first place! I remember the night I moved in, me and Jake, a strange mix of excitement and disappointment. I had a completely out of control dog that I had no idea what to do with, now being forced into a small one-bedroom city condo. What a fail.

I thought about taking him back. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for dog ownership. Maybe I had picked wrong.

As I sat there, feeling a bit overwhelmed, Jake laid his head in my lap as if to say “It’s ok, ma. We’ll figure it out”. He had so much energy and life in him, he simply couldn’t help it. Looking at his sweet face, I knew then I could never take him back. In a few short months we had already grown a bond.

How in the world could I ever say no to this sweet face!?

A friend recommended a personal dog trainer and after a few private sessions I learned that dog training was really about people training. I had been doing everything wrong! I practiced patience drills with Jake and since he was a sucker for positive reinforcement he slowly started to listen.

Jake, best adventure bud.

As the year continued and his training advanced, Jake began to trust me. We did everything together! He learned to run with me and eventually we progressed to using a Ruffwear bungee tied to my waist. We went to the Oregon coast, the Washington desert, the mountains, and everywhere in between. We swam, played frisbee, soccer, and fetch, and spent nearly an hour at the dog park every day.

Jake and I on one of our early (and many) adventures to Tiffany Mountain in the Methow Valley.

When I was busy with work I’d send him to a dog ranch via a van service and he’d come back temporarily tired. They used to tell me “all of our dogs siesta in the afternoon. Jake doesn’t. He’s still going.”

My friends and I did a Thursday night 14-mile mountain biking loop on Tiger mountain. Jake dog came along, going full speed the whole time and racing my friends to the finish. It was the only thing that actually made him tired, then he’d wake up the next morning, ready for more. His energy was unbelievable!

Photo: Kevin McHugh. Unstoppable Jake!

A few years ago when I started spending winters in the Methow Valley, a perk of my freelance lifestyle, I put his pulling to good use and turned him into a skijoring dog. The only problem was that I simply wasn’t a good enough skier to keep up with him!

Winter in the Methow Valley, one of Jake’s favorite destinations!!

Jake dog has been my co-pilot in life for every moment of the last 11 years. He’s outlasted every job and every guy. I can’t think of a single memory without him. He’s stood next to me on mountaintops, swam with me in Lake Washington, played navigator for our road trips, chased me on the snowboard, and curled up with me on the couch for movies.

Jake and I were about a half peak away from both finishing the Cle Elum Summit the District challenge in 2014. Together we summited 6 peaks, hiked 110 miles, and climbed 35k of elevation in a little over a month.

Growing old.

We went on a trail run back in January and for the first time ever, I noticed Jake lagging behind. Maybe I remember it so distinctly because it’s simply never happened before! He was a week from his 12th birthday. “Gettin’ old buddy!” I jokingly yelled at him. But soon I noticed a pattern during our outings: he was moving slower, wearing out faster, and was content to lie on the couch for longer periods of time than I was used to.

A little more gray these days. He still hits the trail, but at a slower pace with a lot more rest breaks.

Then in May, after a backcountry ski tour at Baker, he started limping. The diagnosis was a small tear in his knee ligament, likely from old age and wear and tear.

“Old age?” I asked the vet. She told me that indeed, Jake’s life expectancy was 10-14 years. At 12, he was already bucking the curve.

The strange thing is that it didn’t happen slowly, it seemingly happened overnight. All of a sudden I was staring mortality in the face, realizing for the first time that my best adventure buddy had less years left than he had lived.

Last year I curtailed running and frisbee and some of his more physically demanding activities as it became clear they were tougher for him. Now with the knee injury we’ve dialed things way back and his ski touring days are behind him. He’s not been recommended for surgery for a number of reasons, so instead he’s getting laser therapy, which is successfully treating his inflammation and improving his mobility.

Jake dog on a ski tour to Huntoon Point on Mount Baker back in May. This was likely his last ski tour 🙁

It’s been a difficult adjustment this year to realize that Jake is getting old and his days of crazy big adventures are now in the past. His knee is doing better so we’re getting out again, but I find myself consciously moving slower on our hikes, lowering the distance, and leaving him at home if the outing is technical or difficult.

On a hike a few weeks ago I rounded the summit and excitedly exclaimed “we’re almost there Jake!”, realizing immediately he was home that day, sleeping peacefully on the couch. I sat on the top, the entire place to myself, feeling like something was definitely missing.

The best Jake dog selfie ever from the top of Mount Washington near Snoqualmie Pass. It doesn’t feel right, him not being on mountaintops with me.

When I leave him at home, I can see the disappointment in his eyes.

It doesn’t feel right, me adventuring without him.

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

For years it’s been a dream of mine to backpack the entire Boundary Trail in the Pasayten Wilderness with Jake. It’s about an 80-90 mile endeavor depending on your route. Last year we spent a few nights on the trail and instead of tackling it then, I told myself we’d do it this year. I’ve been planning ever since and reserved my two week vacation in September for the adventure.

As this year has progressed though, it’s clear to me that Jake isn’t capable of an 80-mile thru-hike anymore. It’s been a tough pill to swallow, knowing that eventually I’ll complete my dream, but it’ll be without my best adventure buddy.

Me and Jake dog, peak lounging in the Pasayten last summer. I’ve always dreamed of thru-hiking the Boundary Trail with Jake, but unfortunately I think I waited one year too many to make it happen.

I’ve made the decision to postpone my bigger outings for now and enjoy the last remaining time I have with Jake, however long that may be. There are still plenty of short, easy backpacks we can do and lots of road trips and car camping to keep us busy. Jake adventures are now less about crazy and more about neighborhood walks, short trails, enjoying the scenery, and taking it easy and slow.

A lot more trail siestas these days… and despite giving him ample padding, sometimes he just likes the dirt 🙂

Two weekends ago Jake and I went on a 2-night backpack in the beautiful Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness. It was a relatively easy 6 mile hike in and we wandered the entire area, seeing no one the entire weekend. Jake carried a pack, but a very light one. We took our time and a lot of rest breaks. Although he was a little stiff and tired afterwards, he did great and it was clear he was simply happy to be outside!

Backpacking the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness with my silver muzzled guy, always happy and content when outdoors.

Instead of backpacking the Boundary Trail this September, I’m planning a new itinerary of short backpacks and car camping trips, complete with comfy beds, lots of dog treats, and easy, forgiving trails. As tough as it is to face reality and give up a huge dream, at the end of the day, I’d much rather spend 2 miles with Jake by my side than 2 weeks of hiking the Pasayten without him!

It was tough to write this post and know that Jake dog doesn’t have a lot of years left. It’s amazing to look back at how far we’ve come, the memories of all the great adventures we’ve had and the ones still yet to come.

We’ve had some pretty great adventures and I hope there are more to come!

Read below for tips on adventuring with an older dog and of course, a gallery of Jake adventures!

Tips for adventuring with an older dog.

  1. Keep the mileage and speed low. Jake used to hike up to 20 miles with me and mountain bike 14 while running! These days, 3-6 seems a good range for him, the longer requiring more breaks. Let your dog dictate the pace. Don’t push their speed. Some days Jake moves faster than others. I take his lead now.
  2. Go for easy, short trails. Boulders and scrambles and steep hikes are out these days. Nice smooth trails with average elevation gain keep Jake’s knee and body happier. Short trails mean you’re not caught far out in the backcountry if your dog is struggling.
  3. Watch the heat. The heat is much harder on older dogs. I try to get out early or late in the day when it’s cooler and pick trails with lakes and shade. Or snow!
  4. Lots of water! Make sure your pup has access to lots of water and takes frequent water breaks.
  5. Beware post-holing and deep snow. There has never been anything Jake has loved more than running 100mph through the snow! These days though, deep snow is really hard on his knee and wears him out quickly. He still plays in the snow, but mostly he lies down in it rather than snowplowing through it.
  6. Bring along extra bedding. I bring Jake lots of padding on our backpacking and camping trips. When car camping he gets a nice thick dog bed from home. When backpacking I use a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol combined with a Ruffwear Highlands dog bed. His body appreciates the padding.
  7. Take lots of breaks. Jake used to go hours without stopping. Now I force him to take breaks on the trail and eventually he’ll lie down and take a timeout. It keeps him from overdoing it.
  8. Keep your dog on leash. I find when Jake is on leash, he’s much less likely to go wild and run himself all over the place. Once he tires out a bit, I can let him off and he’s happy to keep an easy pace.
  9. Bring meds. Jake takes some anti-inflammatories to help with his arthritis and knee injury. Make sure to bring you dog’s meds along when you go for a hike or backpack.
  10. Know when it’s too much. Dogs are great at hiding their injuries and pain. When Jake gets outside, his instinct is to shut off his brain and go 200mph. It’s up to me to know when he’s beyond his limits. Know your dog. If it seems like it’s too much, it probably is.

Jake adventures over the years.