Sometimes, dogs surprise us. We may think we’re rescuing them, but more often than not they show up for us in ways we could never foresee. Here are a few dogs whose stories stole the show, whether they were heroes or because they gave us a good laugh.
1. Winner: Tessa, Panton, Vt.
When owner David Raphael first saw his half Newfoundland, half Great Pyrenees Tessa as a puppy, it was love at first sight. Little did he know that eight years later, the same dog, now 150-pounds and nicknamed “Snow Dog,” would save him. Raphael tells the story:
“It happened one seemingly bright winter day when I headed out with my canine companion to ski the backcountry of the Adirondacks.
I started on a familiar trail in light snowfall. After skiing for some time, I veered off the trail to bushwhack to a hidden summit and the promise of some sweet tele-turns on the way back. I became lost in thought as the steady strides of my backcountry boards took over and brought me higher into the deepening forest. I lost track of time. Energized by the fresh, fluffy powder and caught up in the swirl of the storm, I pushed deeper into the now wilder woods, enveloped in winter’s weather.
The afternoon evaporated and before I knew it, breaking trail was an effort. By then, Snow Dog had dropped behind and gusts of wind were whipping up heavier snowfall. Dusk was darkening around me. I checked my compass only to have it tease me with an illogical needle north.
‘That’s not right,’ I muttered. Cell coverage was non-existent and my map was of no use.
Tessa was unruffled, at my side and ready to respond to my lead. But as the whiteout worsened and snow pellets stung my face, I became disoriented in the sameness of the landscape, which was disappearing in the shroud of a blizzard. The storm had completely hidden my tracks and the trail.
A shiver went through me. I had a headlamp, fire starter, warm clothes, some food and a space blanket, but not enough to weather a cold night in the deepening snow. And there was Snow Dog, looking up at me with her moon eyes as if to say ‘Now what?’
I started off in one direction and then went another way, not sure where I was. And then, I said aloud: ‘Snow Dog—you can get us back, you know these woods…right?’ We had skied and hiked here before. ‘Find our way back Snow Dog, find the trail!’ I shouted out as I gestured for her to take off.
Tessa immediately set off through the trees. I followed. For over an hour, she broke trail. Over a rise, around a side slope and down through the black lines of leafless trees, her clearance allowed her to descend the mountain, plowing through drifts that would bury smaller dogs. I was right behind, marveling at how a pet can surely become so much more. I trusted her, relied on her and found reassurance in her stoic countenance as she slid down the steeps, and pushed through the uphills.
My spirits lifted when, in the last light of the Adirondack afternoon, I recognized a familiar face—a cliff that marked our point of departure from the trail. We were back on familiar ground. With headlamp on, and Snow Dog at my side, we retraced the now hidden tracks back to our beginning.
When we finally arrived at the trailhead it was an inscrutably dark winter’s night, but to me it was bright again.”
2. Runner Up: Cooper, Bolton, Vt., Finalist in the Best Buddy Category
This August, Jennifer Jones of Bolton did something that just a few short years ago, she was sure she’d never do again: move to a mountain town and climb to the top of a high peak.
Jones, who grew up hiking as a teenager in Pennsylvania, has a fused spine. Jones was born with deformities that caused issues with her spine later in life. But thanks to her specially-trained Balance dog Cooper, she’s now out on the trails at Bolton Valley, where she owns a condo, most days of the week.
Balance dogs are service animals that are trained to support an owner with limited mobility. Cooper pays close attention to Jones’ stability and will lean into her to offer support if he detects she needs it. Together, they’ve skied and snowshoed all over Vermont over the last two years.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
“I had a really bad fall right before I got him,” says Jones. The fall re-broke several bones in her back and caused her to be so afraid to move independently that she hardly left her home. Then, about two years ago, she got Cooper. “He has helped me get a piece of my life back that I thought I’d lost forever.”
That piece of her life is her independence.
This July, Jones bought a condo at Bolton Valley. After a summer of tackling small daily hikes with Cooper, she decided to hike Bolton Mountain. On the morning that she set out, she was terrified. Her boyfriend, who joined her, assured her, “You can do it. You’ve got Cooper.”
When she eventually reached the summit after many hours, Jones was overcome by tears. “My boyfriend skis and so I’d seen pictures of the view, but to see Lake Champlain from up there for myself? I can’t even describe how it felt,” she said.
Now, thanks to Cooper, she’s set her sights on hiking in Smugglers’ Notch and on trying Bolton Valley’s adaptive ski program.
“I feel like I can do anything with Cooper by my side,” says Jones. “I never thought I’d fulfill my dream of living in the mountains, but because of Cooper that dream has become a reality.”
Cooper was also a finalist in our Best Buddy category, for this photo of him with Jennifer at the top of Bolton Valley Ski Area.
If you see Jennifer and Cooper on the trail, give a friendly wave, but don’t approach him, handsome and friendly though the four-year-old yellow Labrador may be. “When he’s working, which isn’t always the case, I need him to stay focused so I can stay safe,” explains Jones. You can follow Cooper, who, in his off time loves carrying big sticks and showering strangers with kisses, on Instagram at @ssd_cooper.
3. Runner Up: J.P., New London, N.H.
Brandon Baker told us this about his blackberry-foraging rescue pup Joey, a.k.a J.P: “As an ultra-runner and mountain biker, J.P. has joined me outside every day since he came to us in November, 2018. He’s a shy dog who takes a while to warm up to strangers. After finding him with 57 quills in his snout following an off-lead porcupine encounter in May, I finally got the courage to let him off leash for a short, one-mile loop hike near our home in New London, N.H. this summer. Seconds after I let him off-lead, I heard a loud snap to my left and spotted a giant buck about 10 feet away. No sooner had I uttered the words “Joey, no!” than a close chase between my 30-pound terrier and the 150-pound (at least) deer ensued. Regardless of my running background, I couldn’t get to him in time and the dog and deer were soon out of sight. After calling for a bit, I decided to double back with help and some extra treats.
At the trailhead, I got a call from my wife: our little stranger danger man had jumped into a stranger’s car for a snuggle. His caretaker called the number on his tags and was offered a gift certificate to a local breakfast joint while we went (yet again) back to square one of run/hike training.”
Featured Photo Caption: Snow Dog, Panton. Photo by David Raphael.