Traveling in the company of dogs

Allowing your dog to lead the way, you can uncover new places and things about your own neighborhood.


By WALTER NICKLIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 7, 2021

The very first dog that I could properly call “my own” (when I was a preteen), I named “Scout.” His name says it all, encapsulating the impulse that led me to a lifetime of travel, both in the United States and around the world. This ever-curious beagle and I would explore the planet together, with his inquisitive nose always leading the way.

But first, Scout and I would have to make short exploratory expeditions in and around our neighborhood. Wherever Scout pointed the way, I followed. He always lived up to his name, as we discovered places even my parents didn’t know existed. There were, for example, groundhog holes hidden in the tall grass of our next-door neighbor’s yard. Also, I remember an underground stream uncovered only because Scout’s floppy, fine-textured ears picked up the soft sound of moving water.

During the pandemic, dogs can help us see the world differently. In this Time of Corona, when you’re not supposed to leave your house, much less travel to exotic locations, dogs help bring the outside world inside. By retaining a hint of wildness that the modern world has long buried, dogs — these domesticated wolves — represent a source of forgotten knowledge. The kind of knowledge you might absorb by observing jackals on an African safari or coyotes while camping in a national park. And you don’t even have to pay to travel away from home for the experience.

Dogs can also help us interact with other humans, even if their faces are hidden behind masks. That was the role happily assumed by the dog my classmate and I adopted when I spent a year studying in Vienna. “Der Hund” we called him, and his affable presence served as a bilingual tour guide facilitating our interactions with natives. The language of dogs is universal.

In pre-pandemic times, the typical sidewalk parade of assorted furry creatures — led by their human companions clutching plastic bags of doggy poop — could seem a blur, hardly worth noticing. But once you start paying newfound attention, each dog can assume the air of an exotic creature spotted traveling to a foreign land.

What are all the different breeds of dogs, you may wonder now more than ever, that you encounter on daily walks outside your home? It’s a fun game to play during the pandemic, not unlike birdwatching. As there are field guides to bird identification, there are plenty of illustrated encyclopedias and online resources to help recognize the different breeds and learn their fascinating histories.

“Excuse me, is that a Brussels griffon?” The human on the other end of the leash, like a proud parent, will be happy that you ask. This small terrier-like dog was originally bred to be kept in stables to eliminate rodents, you may be told while standing six feet away. It’s a small dog, usually no more than 12 pounds, with a coat typically black or tan. And soon you’ll learn this individual dog’s name.

Maybe it’s Pierre. Or Jacques, Thatcher, Sandy, Kenzy, River, Trixie, Buckley, Sandy, Maggie, Ivy, Brinley. Those are just some of the dogs whose names I have come to know during my twice-daily walks in the neighborhood. I recognize them more easily than the masked neighbors holding the leashes, whose names I always seem to forget.

Dogs can also provide a convenient excuse to get outside — a ticket to much-needed escape from sheltering-in-place isolation. During the tight lockdowns in some parts of Europe, dog owners have been especially privileged — giving them a pass to leave their homes without fear of governmental censure. In the United States, a colleague reports that only because she was looking for some place to walk her dog did she discover the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, whereby old railroad lines and other public spaces “are reimagined to create safe ways for everyone to walk, bike and be active outdoors.”

So on your next walk with your dog to escape the COVID-imposed confines of your house, let the dog lead you — instead of the other way around. While seeing-eye dogs are bred and trained for visually impaired people, all dogs — if you let them — are in effect travel guides, allowing us to see the world anew. The most familiar neighborhood can then become the equivalent of a faraway vacation, since the most rewarding sojourns, no matter how short, are all about exploration and discovery.

You never really noticed the beauty of that magnolia tree around the corner from your house — until your dog insists on stopping and lingering to sniff the urinous scents left by other dogs. It’s the canine version of reading the morning newspaper, as my grandmother used to say. And when you get home, you find yourself searching on the Internet to learn all you can about the polished leaves of a magnolia, as if it were a first-time travel destination — a tree you had formerly taken for granted.

The dogs in my life have always enriched my travel experiences. Take, for example, our mongrel Mitty, whose fondness for chasing sticks was obsessive. When hiking in the woods, searching among the countless other sticks littering the forest floor, she never cheated and would always drop at your foot the very stick that you had thrown as far as you could.

She could discriminate among the twigs and branches of chestnut oak, tulip poplar, white pine and so forth, as I could not. But like a wise and patient travel guide, she awakened my curiosity about the wonders of trees and the types and textures of their wood. Thanks to Mitty, I began to fancy myself an amateur forester or dendrologist.

Another rescue dog, a beagle/terrier mix, helped soothe the ache after Mitty died. My two daughters, studying high school physics at the time, christened her “Quark.” She would disappear for hours to follow scents of unknown creatures. In trying to find and follow her, I had to rely on my eyes (not nose), and so became conversant in scats and tracks — an outdoor traveler’s road map.

Scientists estimate that the canine sense of smell is more than 10,000 times greater than our own, giving them the ability to pick up scents as far as 12 miles away. “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well,” in the words of James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University.

Dogs become extensions of ourselves, with their acute hearing and especially keen noses expanding our field of perception from the visual world to the odoriferous. Talk about travel!

The author's beagle mix, Angel, leads the way during a cross-country skiing expedition.