Trucking Dogs: Fueling Truckers Spirits One Mile at a Time
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
"Sierra" Photo by Shannon Tormey
I spoke with Vance while he was on the freeway headed to Michigan. We began the call in Tennessee, and I knew he crossed the state line when I heard him announce to Hailey, “We’re in Kentucky, girl!”
Trucking is hard: 14-hour days hard. Working weekends hard. Tight turns hard. Merging in an 80-foot vehicle hard. Fully loaded at 80,000 pounds trucks can’t break as quickly as cars hard. It can also be lonely and isolating — long hours with little human contact, high stress to make deliveries on time, and stretches of time without seeing family.
Truckers shower, use the bathroom, launder clothes, and eat at truck stops — with limited food choices because restaurants can’t accommodate 18-wheelers unless they are there to make a delivery.
As a result of this lifestyle, they often lack exercise, maintain a poor diet, and have erratic sleep schedules. According to the CDC, they have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity compared to the general population. There have been conflicting results among studies, but they indicate a reduced lifespan of anywhere from 8–16 years shorter than the average American. Yup, you heard that right.
OK, enough of the morbidity of what I would call a public health crisis. What might improve health and reduce stress? The thing that makes everything in life better: DOGS. Truckers are amazing dog owners — what could be better than 24/7 companionship for a dog? Dogs provide structure for their owners. They force them to get exercise and fresh air, and their mere presence can make them feel less isolated. They’re like a two-for-one with the ability to improve physical and emotional health. It is estimated that 40% of truckers ride with a dog.
"Hailey" photo by Vance T. Barker
Vance adopted Hailey, a lab mix, as a puppy. She is now eight and has been on the road her entire life. Vance speaks openly about his struggles with anxiety, PTSD, and diabetes and how he researched and self-trained her to be his service dog. Vance tells me how dogs have a way of sensing things we can’t —
and he’s right.
He proudly shares a time he passed out from low blood sugar outside of a Walmart in Minnesota, and Hailey went to get help. Thankfully she has never had to do it, but she is trained to honk the horn in an emergency and wakes him from night terrors. A dog’s calming effect is essential as drivers are prohibited from taking certain classes of anti-anxiety medications.
Vance describes Hailey as his best friend. I asked Vance what life would be like without her. “I can’t even fathom… I’d end up in jail or dead.”
Hailey is known for always being dressed in a team jersey. He sent me an email with photos of her and told me, “the only “nude” is from her puppy days. (Which may have been the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.)
Vance is incredibly talented. He created a storyline based on Hailey’s imagination. The characters are formed through Hailey’s interactions with different species they encounter on the road. “El Gato and his bunnies” are her arch enemies, and eventually, “The Farting Squirrels” become her allies. Her stuffed friends with distinct names also appear in the plot, in the backdrop of occasional historical context. You can follow her daily adventures on her Facebook page. As if that weren't enough, she has a line of products, of which 90% of the profit goes to trucking and animal welfare organizations. Yes, NINETY-PERCENT! Why so high, I asked? “I wouldn’t feel right exploiting her for money…that’s not what she’s about.”
"Hailey" Photo by Vance T. Barker
As a service dog, she goes with him everywhere, but he stresses the importance of letting her be a dog too. They go on walks, and he tries to give her an outlet to meet other dogs on the road.
I also spoke with Shannon, who rides with her dog Sierra, a Belgian Malinois she rescued from being given away online six years ago. Trucking is a second career for Shannon. She had a high-paying job, had traveled around the world but carried a lot of sadness from feeling lost and alone in an abusive relationship. When she adopted Sierra, everything changed. EVERYTHING.
She thought, “I’ve seen the world, but I’ve never seen my own country.” So, she hit the road to explore the country in an 18-wheeler. She needed that escape to find her way again. As a woman, it can be hard to make it as a trucker in a male-dominated profession, but with Sierra, she knew she could do anything.
They say we get the dog we need, not the one we want.
Shannon was hoping for a cuddly dog who would give lots of kisses — that’s not Sierra, but ended up being exactly what she needed. Sierra’s independence modeled self-sufficiency and reinforced that she did not have to rely on anyone to be OK. Shannon found her strength and her spirit with Sierra beside her.
“She saved me wholeheartedly. You cannot get that from another human being. She has a way of clearing your soul and reenergizes me. And she does this for others too. Her mission is to make everyone feel cared for and loved.”
Sierra keeps Shannon active with several daily walks, but she’s also adaptable to the times they can’t get out as much. Without Sierra, she would have never had the opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon in Arizona or the Hoover Dam in Nevada.
Sierra is the queen of the truck. She has 15 blankets, a massive dog bed in the rear, and a small bed on the passenger seat. But, this sweet dog also knows when she needs to be on guard. Shannon had a few close calls where Sierra aggressed when someone tried to harm her– something entirely out of character, but no one messes with her mom.
"Sierra" Photo by Shannon Tormey
Through Sierra’s love and connection, Shannon not only found herself but lives a life beyond her wildest dreams.
"Sierra" Photo by Shannon Tormey
With dogs, we can do amazing things. They save us. They heal us. They protect us. They transform us. They provide unconditional love and make us feel less alone in the world. They teach us how to love — one mile at a time.
Interested in adopting a companion of your own? A basic Google search of “animal shelter near me” will provide several options. Take into consideration your activity level and schedule to find a mutually beneficial match. Dogs are incredibly adaptable, but keep in mind that puppies require bathroom trips every two hours and have a propensity for chewing, which can be difficult to manage while driving. Adult dogs make wonderful companions and tend to be more laid back. You can find more information about trucking with dogs here, including breed and safety recommendations. Always check with your company on their canine policies.
Most, most, most importantly: No matter how safe you are, pets can get lost or stolen. Microchips are a must, but there can be confusion about how they work. A chip electronically contains your information and is implanted into a pet by a veterinary professional. If your dog gets lost and someone finds it and takes it to a shelter to be scanned, your information will come up for them to contact you. That’s if they know to do this and not keep your dog. GPS collars such as Fi and Whistle can trace a dog to any location in the US through an app on your phone, and if stolen there is a chance the collar would still be with the theft even if not on the dog.
I’ve created a page just for the amazing photos I see of trucking dogs — I guarantee they will bring a smile to your face.
Photo by David Aleen
This piece is dedicated to Buddy, a trucking dog who passed away on March 13, 2021, after thousands of miles on the road.
This post also appears in Medium