Earth.com exclusive: Hiking With Dogs
Dogs have long been companions for high adventures of all kinds. John Muir wrote of Stikine, a little black dog that accompanied him on an Alaskan expedition and even jumped over glacial crevasses with him. There was the South American botanist explorer Spruce and his dog Sultan who explored Amazonia together. In Jewel Cave there is a tight passage called Dog Balk for when explorer couple’s dog had enough and was ready to leave the cave. Of course there are sled dogs which have been instrumental in much polar exploration.
I’ve seen dogs happily hiking peaks 13,000 or 14,000 feet high in Colorado and Wyoming. My friend Matt has brought his Yellow Labrador, Pokey on many long hikes with us; including one where we helped him from ledge to ledge, held safe with a harness made from climbing webbing. Outdoor films and books often feature dogs; there is Ace and the Desert Dog, a documentary about a man’s 60 day backpacking trip to celebrate his 60th birthday with his dog Genghis Khan. There are books like Merle’s Door about dogs that hike, raft, go on hunting trips and generally live many outdoor enthusiasts’ dream. There is even When Dogs Fly, a film about a professional rock climber and base jumper that brings his dog along, in a specially designed roll cage in his parachute bag. Recently I watched a man doing flips and rolls in his Kayak at the river park in Salida Colorado as his dog sat with his friends and nervously barked and whined, watching what she must’ve thought pure human madness.
Before one paints too rosy an image of dogs along for adventure there are some considerations to keep in mind. Both Antarctic explorers Amundsen and Shackleton ungratefully and cruelly killed their dogs for consideration of human life and cold calculation of expedition objectives. Spruce Killed his dog when he ‘went mad’ after experiencing the roar of rapids in a canoe, and refused to eat or drink. More recently Anthony Ortolani left his German Shepherd at 13,000 feet on Mt. Bierstadt with bloody paws for seven nights of cold temperatures and dehydration. Eventually kind strangers rescued the German Shepherd renamed Lucky against high odds and with considerable personal risk.
Today the focus on the outdoors, even among professional adventurers and explorers has shifted from serious scientific and mapping expeditions to more personal or intrinsic outdoor pursuits. Likewise there is growing concern about the welfare and wellbeing of non-human animals, including the animal closest to us, the dog. One may easily question the purity of motives behind those who bring dogs on the most extreme of adventures. The Iditarod and other dog sled races are often criticized for being cruel. Many people think dogs don’t belong on any of Colorado’s 14,000 ft. peaks (14ers). The National Parks don’t offer much for someone wanting to recreate outside with their canine friend.
The problem seems one of balance. Only those who just plain don’t like dogs or don’t like the outdoors would suggest that dogs should never go on hikes. When Anthony Ortolani left his dog on Bierstadt, he was ridiculed online and in the media but most of the ridicule was because he didn’t mount a rescue for his dog as soon as possible. Ortolani left Lucky with two of his three liters of water when carrying her down became impossible and then remained silent for the next week while other people organized her rescue on the 14ers.com forum. There have been dogs that have summited all of Colorado’s 14ers and opinions on the subject are all over the map. I, with my girlfriend, Erin carried our Shih Tzu, Zari to the top of 14,229’ Mt. Shavano where we were greeted with a hail storm. On the way to the summit of Mt. Shavano and back down, we saw at least 5 other dogs, all seemingly happily hiking the mountain. Zari was quite happy to be let out of her bag after the storm had passed and walk most of the way down the mountain under her own power. On Cloud Peak in Wyoming we also witnessed a Rottweiler with injured paws, scared and alone in a bolder field high on the mountain. We gave the dog food and water lapped from our hands but when we tried to lead him down towards the camping areas he was resistant and disappeared, making his own way, we hoped towards his people.
In some ways smaller dogs seem to have advantages to bigger dogs on harder, longer hikes. The Rottweiler on Cloud Peak and the German Shepherd on Bierstadt were both undoubtedly strong hikers but when the route became too much, they’re quite a burden to carry. Smaller terriers, sheep and some cattle dogs seem to fit in a good middle place where they can be high energy and love walks and runs but are small enough to be carried in a pinch. On a desert trail in western Colorado I saw a Jack Russel Terrier racing after a mountain bike speeding downhill; the dog looked to be having the time of her life.
Of course there is the consideration of knowing your dog and easing him or her into outdoor adventures. Some outdoor pursuits by their nature are unpredictable. Lucky, the dog left on Bierstadt had summited 6 14ers before that fateful mountain. I’ve felt great on some mountains and sick and weak on others with out completely understanding why. Dogs age faster than humans too, just because a dog hiked something last year, it gives no guarantee for the coming year.
In the end, taking your dog (or not) on outdoor adventures comes down to consideration. Ryan Kushner set out to summit all of Colorado’s 14ers with Sophie, his dog but stopped a little short because his Sophie was getting old and arthritic and he didn’t want to cause unnecessary pain. One could ask why he took his dog on any 14er in the first place but the answer is plain when one sees dogs and humans happy together high in the mountains. Because dogs can’t communicate clearly, because they may push themselves further than they should for a human they love, we should show dogs more consideration than we show ourselves.
On a long hike when I was in my teens, I took our mix breed family dog, Chance with me, we got a little lost and took longer getting back than I anticipated. Eventually it was obvious Chance’s paws were getting sore from walking longer than he was accustomed to. I picked Chance up and carried him for miles over my shoulders back to the car; it was the only time I remember Chance letting me pick him up. Carrying Chance made the hike harder for me but I got him into the mess in the first place and I felt truly sorry his feet were sore. Showing a dog more consideration than yourself means not only being willing to carry your dog or invest in booties or salve. Putting your dog first can also mean what is anathema to many peak baggers: turning around before the summit. Your dog is more important than any amount of posturing for the perfect photo at the top.