The Dogs Who Helped Me Love the Outdoors

Cover photo courtesy of Amy McCaffree

Emerson was my first companion. An all-white Siberian husky—a dog breed I specifically chose for its high energy and athletic endurance—Emerson came into my life at a pivotal time. I was 24 years old, recovering from heartbreak, and had read that having a pet decreased stress and one’s risk of depression. I also wanted a running partner.  

Although research hasn’t proven that pet ownership prevents anxiety and depression, studies have shown that dog owners are more physically active. More exercise and time spent outdoors improves mental health. Emerson became my outdoor buddy not only for long-distance running, but also for hiking and mountain biking. With an always-ready, enthusiastic recreation companion, I was motivated to get out there no matter the weather. Emerson inspired confidence, a sense of protection, and kept me company on every run, even the 16- and 20-milers while I was marathon training.  

Courtesy Amy McCaffree

When Emerson was four years old, he moved with me from the Seattle area to Spokane. Everywhere I went outdoors, Emerson came along, from backpacking in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness to biking along the Centennial Trail. Through grad school and early married life, he was a faithful companion, despite his mischievous tendencies and stressful situations that became funny stories. 

When Emerson was almost nine years old, my husband, Judd, and I adopted another all-white husky. Kenai energized old Emerson. With two outdoor buddies, we prioritized recreation and adventure travel where our dogs could come along. Naturally happy and calm, they helped me through hard times. And while huskies are confidently independent, Kenai was especially attuned to my emotions—and wasn’t an escape-artist like Emerson. 

A couple of years later, babies started joining our family pack. As Emerson approached his 13th birthday, his health quickly declined. This was my first experience making the dreaded decision. I worked through my grief while staying busy with mothering and caring for Kenai, then three. Especially heartbroken, Kenai would howl when left alone at home; thereafter, she came with us wherever dogs were allowed.  

Kenai became my companion for everything outdoors: walking kids to school, sledding and snowshoeing, following me around while I gardened, going on hikes and long walks around the neighborhood. Inside, she always laid by my feet while I worked on my writing; overnight she slept in the kids’ bedrooms. Kenai loved camping. Even though she wasn’t a natural “water dog,” she did not like being left behind while I was paddleboarding or kayaking. It was doable because she was petite, weighed only 40 pounds, and wore a doggy lifejacket. 

Courtesy of Amy McCaffree

Too soon, my kids grew into tweens and Kenai, now deaf, was becoming increasingly frail due to an inoperable lipoma on her hip. There was no way to protect my kids from the most horrible day of their young lives. Witnessing their grief compounded my own. I felt gutted. My children had never lived without a dog; I had never lived without one in Spokane. After nearly 15 years together, Kenai’s absence was disorientating, an inconsolable ache, as if my compass was gone. Throughout all the ups and downs of marriage, pregnancy, parenthood, and my outdoor adventures, Kenai was there.  

As the family dog, she was our constant common bond, despite diverging interests and activity schedules as the kids grew older and more independent. Kenai’s affection and unconditional love was a daily source of joy and reassurance for each of us. Our devotion to Kenai kept us connected; giving her the best life was our shared purpose.  

“Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one is a life diminished,” wrote Dean Koontz. Which explains why we felt out of sorts without Kenai, fractured by the emotional and mental fallout. It was as if her death broke the family. My husband and I, especially, couldn’t imagine loving another dog as much as her.  

Without a dog, heartbroken from loss, I wasn’t compelled to spend time in my backyard. After 23 years as a “dog mom,” I felt adrift. Long gone were my daily walks with Kenai, but I was also missing all the subtle ways that backyard time, my nature sanctuary—even just being among the trees—stimulated my senses and enhanced my mood. I didn’t realize how much of the everyday outdoors I had been missing without a dog until I stepped out my back door and into deep snow that first dog-less winter.  

Courtesy of Amy McCaffree

More than a year later, opportunity and timing aligned this past February for us to adopt an 8-week-old puppy—a mini-Australian shepherd and Labrador mix, aka an Aussiedor. Layla is cuddly, affectionate, whimsically playful, smart, and occasionally feisty, yet easy to train. My teens are learning new levels of responsibility, selflessness and cooperation by raising a puppy—they have a new shared purpose. There is way less angst and a lot more laughter with a family dog. Layla makes them act like little kids again. And we’re all getting outside with renewed purpose.  

A year without a pet revealed that my outdoorsy life is best lived with a dog by my side. Being a dog-mom boosts and sustains my emotional and mental well-being. Once again, I spend hours upon hours in my backyard—playing with Layla, supervising her, and simply being there as she explores. 

As a family, we’re also spending more time together because of Layla. Whether playing with her on the grass, throwing balls, running around trees, or lounging in our hammock and chairs on sunny days. This summer, Layla will come along everywhere we go outdoors: on hiking trails, camping trips, and lake days.  

Never truer is what my favorite poet (and fellow dog-lover) Mary Oliver proclaimed: “Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift . . . what would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would the world be like without dogs?”  

For my world to be most wonderful, I need nature, outdoor recreation, and daily walks—each best shared with a four-legged companion.  

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Amy McCaffree is a senior writer for Out There and has been contributing to this magazine for more than 18 years. Find her on Instagram and see videos and photos of her dogs @adventure_amy_spokane. 

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