My Dog Just Turned 10. Here Are the 10 Most Important Lessons He’s Taught Me.
One man’s journey to become the person his dog thinks he is
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Around the first week of January, ten years ago, a feral gray wolf-German shepherd gave birth to a litter of puppies in a storm drain outside of San Diego. My friends who rescued the mother and all her pups never met the dad, but I’m going to guess he was a pit bull. When one of those puppies jumped over a fire pit, my friends remarked that he was the dumbest in the litter, and therefore he was the right dog for me. They texted me a photo of the puppy, and the rest is history. Here’s what Wiley and I have learned along the way.
There Is No Right Time to Adopt a Dog
My friends decided that I needed a dog because I’d just lost my business to some greedy partners, then gone on to bounce a 500-pound motorcycle off of my left knee, left arm, coccyx, and rib cage. I was penniless, struggling to walk, and alone. That was really hard. Saying yes to an eight-week-old puppy was not.
Over the next couple of years, while I struggled to put my life back together, I went more than a few nights without being able to put dinner on the table for myself. I never once failed to find a meal for Wiley. Nor did he lack for veterinary care, exercise, socialization, training, or anything else a dog requires.
If I was able to figure out what it took to take care of a total monster of a puppy during all that, you can fit a dog into your life, too. Yes, it will require changes. Yes, it costs money. Yes, it’s an immense commitment. But it will also force you to change your life for the better.
If there’s one piece of advice I can offer, it’s this: if you have the opportunity to adopt an awesome dog, say yes. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
It Takes a Village
One of the biggest reasons I was able to make the adoption work—and then went on to adopt Wiley’s two younger siblings—is that I’ve had a lot of help from friends. A ride to the vet before I was able to afford a new car was always just a text message away.
Next month, my wife and I are flying down to Todos Santos to celebrate our third wedding anniversary. A plane ticket for our buddy Stuart to fly up from Los Angeles to Bozeman, where we live, actually works out cheaper than a kennel. And the dogs will be way happier bossing him around for a couple weeks than they would be sleeping in a cage.
We do, of course, try to pay it all back. Developing a network of fellow dog enthusiasts—be they owners or not—who can do each other favors is key to covering the unexpected, the emergency, and the utterly mundane stuff that’s going to happen. And I try to pay it forward: I walked my neighbor’s puppy last Sunday so that they could enjoy a full day skiing.
No Two Dogs Are Alike
Despite daily effort, it took Wiley about four years to learn to come, and to do that in environments where there are other dogs, fun stuff to chase, or interesting smells. Our youngest dog, Teddy, proved reliable off-leash on the drive home from the shelter, when she was only five months old.
No matter the breed—or the alleged personality traits of that breeds—every dog is an individual. Given Wiley’s genetics, he should be an unpredictable, violent criminal. Yet any friend who knows him trusts him to snuggle up to their human children. Teddy’s an Anatolian Shepherd—the gnarliest dog known to man—but she likes nothing more than to cuddle us and her siblings in bed.
Learning each of our dogs’ quirks is what enables us to set them up for success. The training approaches that (eventually) worked for Wiley were not the same as the ones that worked for Bowie, our Husky-German Shepherd, or Teddy. Neither can all three eat the same stuff, go as long between bathroom breaks during car rides, or be trusted off-leash in the same circumstances.
Prioritize Your Dog as Much as They Prioritize You
Wiley will—and has—put his own life on the line to protect my wife and me. That level of protection is significant and unwavering. I figure the least I owe him in return is the same. And that should remain true, even in situations that don’t involve bears, meth heads, or wayward cops.
Showing up for your dog is as simple as prioritizing them. Wiley, Bowie, and Teddy are present in every decision I make, from what we cook for dinner—bone-in ribeyes produce great dog treats—to where and how we go on vacation and my daily schedule.
And the more you incorporate your dog into your day-to-day, the easier it gets. Does that restaurant allow dogs? Taking them there frequently will help teach your dogs to sit patiently in restaurants. Activities that are dog friendly will invariably be healthier, more active, and more interesting, if for no other reason than that your dogs are there.
The Secret to Longevity Is Diet and Exercise
In ten years, Wiley has already outlived many of his compatriots. And he’s not slowing down, outside of the occasional grumpy attitude. Healthy food and plenty of exercise are the keys to living a healthy, long, active life. The same goes for your dogs.
A Good Dog Sitter Is Worth Their Weight in Gold
As much I hate it, there are plenty of times I can’t take my dogs with me. But that doesn’t mean my dogs stop being dogs, stop needing exercise, or stop needing care. And that’s created some interesting problems, because dogs are never going to respond to other people the way they do to their owners.
I learned this the hard way. While sitting between Bill Gates and Tom Hanks at my brother-in-law’s graduation, I got a call from a guy I’d hired through an app to walk Wiley. Despite explicit instructions to the contrary, he’d taken Wiley up to Hollywood Boulevard, where my dog had allegedly bitten someone. Later that same year, another app yielded a dog sitter from whom the dogs escaped, before rampaging our new neighborhood in Bozeman. That one required an emergency flight home, at the expense of several thousand dollars, in order to capture them.
It’s taken a lot of forethought and planning, but now we have a multilayered network of friends, family, and professionals tee’d up and ready to go, not only as we plan trips, but also in case something bad happens while we’re on one. And leaving the dogs at their own house, with a person they love, feels an awful lot better than locking them up in doggie prison. It’s also cheaper.
Allow Your Dog to Take Managed Risks
I know Wiley can successfully manage himself while swimming whitewater, fighting bears, dealing with neighborhood traffic, or just laying by a campfire way out in the middle of nowhere. How? Because I’ve allowed him to face all those things on his own terms. Even if I’ve sometimes hovered over him anxiously in the process.
The first time he encountered these risks was pretty freaking scary. But it was worth it, because it produced a companion who’s reliable, and it genuinely reduces stress when things get hairy. Wiley isn’t just one less thing to worry about, he’s a multiplier to my own efforts, warding off danger and alerting me of problems before my own senses might be capable of detecting them.
One of the biggest unexpected benefits of owning a dog? I get a better night’s sleep in camp now, knowing that if anything or anyone comes around looking for trouble, it’ll be scared off, or I’ll be alerted to it, before it becomes a problem. The same holds true when walking home late at night. Heck, I can loan Wiley to friends doing risky stuff, in order to give them the same effect.
Trust Your Dog’s Instincts
Hiking through a remote forest near Glacier National Park a couple of weeks ago, all three dogs stopped and started growling. I could see no tracks in the snow, and no movement to indicate any animals or humans were in the area, but I still decided to turn around and head for home.
That’s an instinct I’ve learned to trust through experience. On a backpacking trip five years ago, Wiley suddenly put himself in front of me, and physically prevented my attempts to move around him. Why? Turns out there was a huge rattlesnake hiding in the grass just ahead. I would have stepped on it had it not been for my dog’s snake training.
I also trust Wiley’s instincts about people. He’d never taken a single command from another human before Virginia showed up. But a few dates in, he allowed her to take him for a solo off-leash hike in a crowded Los Angeles dog park, while remaining on his best behavior. We planned our entire wedding around him, and the two other dogs we’d adopted in the meantime, two years later.
A Dog Can Make You the Best Version of Yourself
When I first got Wiley, I rolled his exercise requirements into my daily routine. Five minutes of focused effort, per month of age, twice a day. Since I was learning how to walk again, that worked pretty well for me, too. A 20-minute walk quickly became a 90-minute hike, and eventually a couple hours, out of the house every day. I couldn’t really afford to do much, but Wiley gave me a purpose and reason to be active. Later, his need to get a bathroom break enforced a curfew on parties, and redirected a lot of my social interactions toward dinners cooked at home, picnics, hikes, or sunset drinks on a dog friendly beach.
Do dinner parties, hikes, and sunsets sound a lot healthier than dive bars and parties? They are, and the healthy habits your dog can help your form quickly become routine.
No matter who you are, or what your life is like, your dog is programmed to think you’re the best companion on earth. Learning to live up to that expectation will improve your fitness, mental health, and sense of self. Heck, just having unconditional love to come home to can make even the worst days feel better.
There Is No Shortcut to Consistency and Patience
How do you get a dog like Wiley? One that can represent as important of a shift in your own life as Wiley represented in mine? Conventional wisdom might lead you to think it’s the purchase of a certain breed, or the adoption of a specific training method, or the fulfillment of some preset expectation about what dogs are supposed to be or how they’re supposed to act. It’s not.
My secret? I’ve showed up every day for the last ten years, and tried to give my dogs what they need. Beyond that, the specifics don’t matter.
Want to have a dog that knows a certain command or performs some trick? Work on it a little every day. Don’t expect results overnight, but do expect patience from yourself.
Take them everywhere with you that’s feasible, expose them to as many experiences as possible, and work on training every day, throughout their lives. Invest enough time and effort in your dog, and your dog will learn to become an integral, enormously positive part of your life.