Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hiking with Dogs

Hiking with Dogs
By Dan Nelson

Through the last decade, the population of the United States—particularly the western states—has exhibited remarkable growth in two areas: hiking and dog ownership. Today, there are more hikers than ever before, and there are also more dog owners than at any time in history. That means the intersection of those two population segments—hikers with dogs—is booming, too.

Despite this growing affinity for dogs as pets, canines on trails continue to be a contentious issue. Some hikers feel domestic dogs have no place in the wilderness, citing cases of dogs attacking or molesting other hikers, harassing wildlife, and fouling trails and campsites. Yet, as with any trail user group, a small segment of the group creates the problems. With some care, understanding, and education, dogs can be tremendous trail users.

The key is education not only for the dogs and the dog owners but also for the general hiking public who will surely, at some time or another, encounter dogs on trails. People with sentiments against dogs on trails will successfully push for dog bans if dog owners continue to let their canines run freely up the trails, chasing wildlife (which, depending on the species pursued, could be a state or federal offense, punishable by sizable fines and/or jail time for dog owners) and harassing other hikers. Any unwanted approach of a hiker by a dog can be considered harassment.

Yet hikers create a dangerous precedent when they start advocating for the ban of some users—even canine trail users—merely because some of those users are behaving badly. With dogs already banned from some trails, trail “purists” are setting their sights on other bothersome uses. There are calls to outlaw trail runners on some trails, to ban certain styles of climbing (e.g., eliminate the use of fixed anchors anywhere in designated wilderness, and limit the amount of chalk used on big wall routes), and to severely limit the number of day hikers in some wildernesses.

The question is whether dogs are harmful to the natural environment, and the answer clearly is “no more so than hikers.” Just as there are responsible and irresponsible hikers, there are responsible and irresponsible dog owners. Dogs who are well controlled by their owners and picked up after by their owners can be among the least intrusive types of trail users. Animals restrained by leash or by good training stay on the trail, and they do no damage to the hard-packed tread (at least, far less than their two-legged friends). They don’t trample vegetation at campsites (to the degree humans tend to do). They are no more of a threat to water quality than other hikers (dogs should be led at least 200 feet from water sources when they need to defecate, and their waste should be buried—in other words, dogs should adhere to the same guidelines as humans). Done right, dogs can actually help hikers see more wildlife with less impact to those wild critters.

That has been my own experience hiking with dogs. A well-trained dog—one who doesn’t bark, who stays at heel or walks calmly on a short (less than ten feet) leash, and who obeys my vocal and hand-signal commands—increases my wildlife viewing opportunities substantially. That is, after all, why many dog breeds were created: to increase the likelihood of seeing animals during a hunt. That’s not to say dog owners should just rush out and hit the trail. Indeed, some wild areas are off limits by regulation to dogs, such as national parks and monuments. Know the land management rules before you set out. The hikes in this book were chosen because dogs are allowed. Best Hikes with Dogs However, trail regulations and trail conditions can change. Hikers should contact the land manager before every hike to find out the current regulation status and condition of the route. But what I would like to focus upon here are special considerations that dog owners must always bear in mind when traveling with their four-legged friends. Hiking in the Cascades is one of the most enjoyable pursuits you’ll ever experience, but it can also be one of the most deadly. All that beautiful, natural wilderness poses great danger to ill-prepared and unsuspecting hikers and their canines. A stroll through a sunny wildflower meadow at 6000 feet in the North Cascades can become a nightmare struggle through a slippery, sodden field of mud in a matter of moments. Thunderstorms can develop and blow in with little or no advance warning.

Hikers who plan to spend a day on the trail may twist an ankle while crossing a talus slope and end up having to the spend the night, waiting while someone makes the long hike out, summons medical personnel, and then leads them back to you. Dogs many sprain a knee or elbow, tear a pad, encounter a porcupine, or fall off a ledge.

The key to having an enjoyable and safe hike is being prepared—both you and the dog—not just for the conditions you expect to encounter but for the unexpected conditions, as well.

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