Adventure Dog Winner: The Story Of Bear

Owning a dog means a lot more that taking him on hikes and giving hugs. 

By Mark McConville and Lisa Lynn

If you spot Nicole Handel on the top of Mt. Mansfield or Camel’s Hump with her German Shepherd, Bear, in her arms, don’t be surprised. “It’s become our tradition to ‘give hugs’ at the summit of every mountain we climb,” says the 24-year-old community outreach manager who also teaches indoor cycling in Burlington and bartends at RiRas.

“That’s how the classic ‘Bear & Nicole’ picture began, we’d get to the top, and I’d kneel over to pet Bear, and then ask him for “hugs,” at which time he’d put his paws around my shoulders and I’d pick him up. A hundred hikes or so later, and here we are.”

It’s a ritual that has made Bear somewhat of an Instagram sensation. Handel, who takes him camping and hiking and wherever else she goes, has posted photos of Bear from Mt. Manfsield to Moab. She now has more than 15,000 followers on Instagram. (Follow her @nicolehandel). Her hikes with Bear are also immortalized in the some of the tattoos that cover her arm and shoulder, and have been written up in media ranging from Lonely Planet to British websites.

“I never really wanted a dog, but the moment I got Bear, my entire life began to revolve around him,” says Handel, who got Bear when he was 8 weeks old from an ex-boyfriend. “From the time he was a puppy, I took him on hikes throughout the Northeast. It seemed to be his favorite activity.”

Handel, who grew up in upstate New York, went to Champlain College. “After a few big life changes, and a permanent move to Vermont, I made a promise to Bear—now that it was just him and I—that I was going to give him the best life possible. With that came the promise of getting outside every day,” she says. “Some days it’s a short trail walk a few minutes from our apartment, and other days it’s a West Coast camping trip. The point has remained the same, though: to get outside and be together there.”

Bear has a host of fairly stereotypical German Shepherd “flaws.” “I like to think of them as training challenges,” says Handel. “He’s anxious, leash-reactive, high-energy, and often insecure—these are all qualities that have been softened or aided by the outdoors, and by our daily, dedicated training (on trails, in the driveway, wherever). I like to think that being outside has positively influenced Bear and me in more ways than one.”

Although Bear and Handel have been to California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, New Hampshire, New York, and Canada together, their favorite hike is still Mt. Mansfield. “We usually do this hike more than once a month, and it’s become our tradition to hug at the summit each time.”

To read about the rest of the 2017 Adventure Dog Winners, click here.