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

Some thoughts on Missy, a dog rescue, and putting your pet at risk on the trail

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)

We love our dogs.

We treat them as family. Name them, adopt them, rescue them. We carry them around in dog-purses, photograph them like they were our first-borns and write books about them.

For many people, their dogs are part of their outdoor pastimes. Our faithful friends are running buddies, hiking partners and even pack animals on the trail.

So it’s no surprise that the story of Missy has touched a nerve nationally.

Here’s the backstory.

Missy is a German Shepherd who, along with her owner and another hiker, were in the middle of hiking a challenging route in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans is a rugged and exposed connecting ridge called the Sawtooth. While a hike up Bierstadt is relatively straightforward, traversing the ridge is a Class 3 climb that involves some careful moves over areas with significant drop-offs.

This is a challenge, and quite honestly, a lot of accidents have occurred on the ridge that have seriously hurt or even killed some people. While it’s not considered the toughest ridge traverse in the state, the accidents that have occurred there underscore that it’s not a walk in the park.

Somewhere in the middle of the traverse, Missy could go no further. She was tired, her paws were bleeding from the rocks and she’d had enough. Her human companions, from what has been posted online by acquaintances, grew concerned about deteriorating weather conditions and could not carry the 100-pound animal out.

So they made a big decision: They decided to turn back and leave Missy on the ridge.

The story went national not long after another couple traversing the same ridge came across Missy. She was still alive, but in worse shape. They also could not carry her out. So they gave her some food and water, left the ridge, and made a post on 14ers.com about Missy with hopes that someone might be able to organize an effort to get her off the mountain.

People rallied, Missy was found alive and is now recovering in the custody of local authorities.

A view of the Sawtooth, a connecting ridge between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans in Colorado.

There are a lot of subplots. The owner came forward, expressed gratitude to Missy’s rescuers and said he hoped to get his dog back. There’s been a lot of anger about this incident, and not just a little bit of vitriol. Two separate threads on the 14ers.com forum had to be locked by the site’s administrator because of how heated things got.

My thoughts on this don’t center on Missy’s owner, his decision to leave the dog there, and the good fortune that she was found alive and successfully removed from the mountain (a pretty remarkable team effort). (UPDATE: Missy’s owner was charged with animal cruelty on Friday, according to this report from Outside Online.)

Instead, I look toward the decisions made before that little excursion started.

Back in 2005, I was hiking along the shore of the Gunnison River deep in the Black Canyon, getting ready to start a nice little climb to some pretty hot fishing. Down the shore, I saw a couple hiking toward us, with the woman carrying her toy-sized pooch in a dog purse. I thought this was strange, but laughed it off. It was Paris Hilton meets “Man vs. Wild,” a punchline of the funny extremes people will go to for the purpose of including their beloved pet in their daily activities (it’s doubtful that little guy would have made it far on such rocky terrain on its own).

A few years later, I saw something similar but much more disconcerting while climbing Mount Yale.

Much of that mountain’s route is pretty dog-friendly, a well-marked and maintained trail. But the summit ridge is a rocky, boulder-strewn mess. It’s fun for people who like boulder-hopping and scrambling. No problem for hooved creatures like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and likewise pretty friendly for smaller animals like marmots and pikas.

For canines, not so much. And after one dog – a beautiful golden lab – reached its limit, it pooped out and stopped cold.

So what’s an owner to do? Turn around? Rest with his pet for awhile? Nope. The guy picked up the dog and carried it to the summit.

That, my friends, is ridiculous.

It’s obvious the dog either did not want to go any further or could not go any further. The decision to haul it up to the top was entirely a decision of the owner. Why do this? To get a summit photo with his pet? To say he did it with his dog? To put a checkmark by the name of the mountain he climbed? No matter what the answer is, the decision in that case was done without the dog’s well-being in mind. That little trick was all about what the owner wanted.

I’m all for bringing your dog on outdoor adventures. But you need to be certain that the adventure in which you’re embarking is within the capabilities of your companions. Remember, just the act of taking your dog with you makes you responsible for the animal’s safety. Your pet didn’t drag you to the mountains. You made the decision to take it there.

In the same way you are responsible for your kids, or beginner hikers/climbers, or clients, you are responsible for your animals on the trail. They trust you. They are unaware of the challenges that lie ahead.

An out-of-shape or old dog probably isn’t up for a long hike. Fewer dogs are up for anything above Class 2 hikes, and certainly any climb involving the need for three to four points of contact will rule out your pet.

Take your dog on your hikes. Get it some exercise and outdoor time. But just remember that heat, cold, elevation and bad weather will affect dogs as much as they do people. And unless you put booties on Fido’s paws, the wear and tear from rock scrambles will chew their paw pads up badly over time.

Don’t let your dog end up like Missy. Don’t let yourself get vilified like Missy’s owner. And don’t leave it up to others to haul your animal off the mountain.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088