Should dogs be brought into the backcountry?

Our dogs can make the ultimate trail buddies. (Craig Cook photo)

Our dogs can make the ultimate trail buddies. (Craig Cook photo)

They call the domesticated canine “man’s best friend,” and it seems more true these days than most. People love their cats, but America’s love of dogs seems to have flown into the stratosphere, with people taking them to bars, insuring their health and toting them around in purses.

The outdoorsy set is no different. We love our dogs, and to share our adventures with them. Find the right breed and you’ll have a furry friend that’s up for long hikes, backpacking trips or trail runs for life. Given most pups’ eagerness to do whatever their human friend is doing, it’s tough to find a better adventure buddy or training partner.

I recently read an essay in The Adventure Journal (originally posted in the High Country News) that caught my eye. The headline, “Dogs Don’t Belong in National Park Backcountry,” caused a bit of a fuss, I’m sure. Make a suggestion about a dog not being allowed to go somewhere its human goes will get pet owners’ hackles up as much as their pooch’s when the doorbell rings.

The writer made a few points that are worth considering: that some breeds aren’t good for hiking; that the mixing of dogs and wildlife often isn’t good for either; and that it’s unfair to the dog to be put in situations of risk when the animal doesn’t have any real understanding of what risk is.

(As a matter of disclosure on the article, its main point was that some people are abusing “service dog” considerations to get around rules that prohibit dogs in restricted areas, such as NPS backcountry.)

Although I don’t currently own a dog, I’m hugely pro-dog. Most dogs like me, and I can spend a lot of time playing with dogs. I even chose my barber because he keeps a huge Great Dane/Rhodesian Ridgeback with him in his shop. I see people out with their dogs on walks, running/biking trails, and out in the backcountry all the time, and I’ve personally never had any trouble with them. A number of my friends bring Fido along on all their adventures, and indeed, their trips wouldn’t be the same without them. Given the right amount of outdoor space, I’d own a dog for sure.

One appeal to the outdoorsy dog: their energy is contagious. (Ken Childress photo)

One appeal to the outdoorsy dog: their energy is contagious. (Ken Childress photo)

But I’m not going to say the essay in question was just a case of a non-dog person writing a big harrumph at dog owners’ expense.

Let’s take a look at her first point: that a lot of dogs are not good hikers.

About 10 years ago, I was doing some fishing in Colorado’s Black Canyon when something really weird caught my eye: a couple hiking along the other bank of the river, with the woman carrying a toy-breed dog in a dog purse. Obviously, that dog wasn’t going to be good for hiking, but to each his/her own. If she wants to pull a Paris Hilton while hiking along a mountain river, that’s on her.

Another time, while hiking Quandary Peak, I came across another party and their golden lab, which clearly was not ready for a full day’s hiking at altitude. The dog reached its physical limit, plopped down, and refused to move. The owners had two choices: Pick the animal up and carry it out, or simply wait until it was ready to move again. I’m not sure how that went down. My group moved on. Hopefully they were able to coax their dog the rest of the way down the mountain, or find a way to otherwise bring it back to the trailhead.

And on one more occasion, while topping out on Mount Yale, I saw a fella carrying his pet (another lab) the entire way up the mountain’s final, bouldery and rugged stretch to the top. At that point, I wondered if it was more of a pride thing for the owner (“Me and Bruno bagged our 10th 14er!”) than anything else.

Not all hikes are a walk in the park, and certainly not all dogs — even your furry little athlete — are ready for big days in the wild.

Canine camp companions. (Matt Carver photo)

Canine camp companions. (Matt Carver photo)

Let’s move on to the second point — that dogs and wildlife often don’t mix.

Now this is a little trickier, because it’s hard to quantify dogs’ impact on wildlife if the dog is well-behaved. The article mentioned the potential effects of dogs’ droppings, noises and scents on wildlife. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on that, but there are other impacts that are much easier to see.

A few years back, I interviewed Jessica Evett, who at the time had been doing a lot of work with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a conservation organization that benefits the Colorado high country. I asked her for advice on how people should conduct themselves on the peak, and one of her points was to mind your pets.

She advised keeping dogs on a leash when on the trail. I’m not going to go that far, but her reasons for saying this are based on sound logic. Dogs like to explore, and when they see wildlife, they often like to give chase. For many of those animals, the months they’ve spent fattening up on the bounty of spring and summer means storing life-saving calories for the harder, colder months to come. Burning those calories escaping your dog could mean the difference between life and death in the winter.

It’s important to remember that the places we love to visit are the homes of wild animals. We get to leave and enjoy the comforts of civilization. They have to deal with the consequences of our encounters.

And all of this says nothing of wildlife encounters that go wrong for the dog. Just imagine a curious or feisty dog getting the wrong end of a moose’s antlers, a mountain goat’s horns, or a bear’s claws. ‘Nuff said.

And now the third point: that the insistence on bringing a dog into the backcountry can lead to grave consequences for the animal.

A few years ago, much of Colorado was abuzz after some hikers and their dog ran into trouble when their dog, an able-bodied German Shepherd we came to know as “Missy,” pooped out in the middle of a rugged ridge traverse between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Missy’s paws were bleeding (common for dogs on rough terrain like the Rockies), and I’m sure the fatigue of a long day above 12,000 feet put the animal in a no-win situation. With deteriorating weather moving in, Missy’s owner and companions didn’t feel they could carry her out. So they left her on the ridge and hiked back to safety.

Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)

Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)

The good news is that word got out about Missy, and some determined souls went up the mountain, found the dog, and eventually carried her down safely.

The problem here is that the hikers who brought Missy to the mountain knew beforehand what the terrain had in store, and could make a decision on what to do if the hike and climb proved to be too much. Missy, being a dog, wouldn’t have had a clue. Safe to say, bringing her to that mountain and on the ridge was grossly unfair to the dog, and could have left her dead. How many other dogs are put in similar situations, simply because their owners insist on bringing them? Who knows. Probably more than we’d like to admit. And it points to a concern that maybe most dogs aren’t cut out for the rigors of backcountry adventure. Some are, for sure. But many others aren’t.

Dogs can be capable of a lot of things in the outdoors. As an owner, make sure they're ready for the places you want to take them. (Noel Johnson photo)

Dogs can be capable of a lot of things in the outdoors. As an owner, make sure they’re ready for the places you want to take them. (Noel Johnson photo)

For me, this leads me to two words: personal responsibility. You, the dog owner, know far more about what you’re getting into than your dog ever could. So the animal’s welfare rests almost entirely on you. You should definitely have enough food and water for the dog, and any gear or supplies that might be needed if your pet has problems on the trail. And if you can’t carry the animal out, maybe you should think twice before taking it with you.

It also seems wise to train your dog for your adventures. No one decides to run a marathon, then heads out for 26.2 miles the next day. It’s something you have to train for.

It’s the same thing for a big hike. You’re not going to do a 20-miler in the mountains without testing your legs and body on shorter hikes first, so why would anyone expect their dog to be any different? Training your dog to obey your commands and getting it physically ready for your outings seems like the right thing to do for your pet’s sake.

I’m not going to say dogs shouldn’t be in the backcountry. Some do quite well. But just how well they do is often entirely up to you.

Got some thoughts on this subject? Take the poll below, and leave some comments.

Bob Doucette

4 thoughts on “Should dogs be brought into the backcountry?

  1. In most cases, I have seen responsible owners with dogs which enjoy the day out. But I have 2 specific instances of owners making insufficient allowance for dog’s capabilities on Colo 14’ers, both in summer or early fall and in good weather.
    Mt of Holy Cross – a large white dog, like a Pyrenees, had become separated from his owners. This was well below the summit. People were concerned about the dog, which obviously had sore paws. People made bandages/booties for its feet. Some wonderful young men then carried it all the way back to the TH. Each would put the dog across his shoulders and hike a short distance, then pass the dog to the next guy. The fact that the dog was OK lying wrapped around someone’s neck and then being picked up and moved to another person showed that either it was the mellowest dog in CO or that it was exhausted. In that case, I believe there were issues concerning the people who’d taken it out and SAR was already at the TH.
    Mt Sneffels (I think; I have a mental photo of the rock slope but name is less certain) – a man had his young lab-type dog out on what was probably its first big mountain. Ascending a long rocky slope the dog was whimpering and crying and clearly afraid, and falling well behind its owner. However, they continued up. That may have been the same person who, when approaching the final few feet to the summit which wasn’t possible for the dog, left it in the care of some other climber, a stranger, who was taking a rest at that point. I really wished this person had taken the time to gradually teach the dog about mountain climbing, in the same way a human needs to start with easy stuff and work up to more difficult as they gain confidence.

    • Great take. Holy Cross is a big day for anyone,human or canine, and the owner had no business leaving the dog out of sight. Had it not been for the group, that dog may have been a goner. As for Sneffels, I think the rocky slope you’re talking about is the Lavender Couloir. Loose talus for a quarter-mile would be rough on any dog, and I can’t imagine how a dog would manage The Notch. Glad both cases worked out OK for the dogs.

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