December 6th, 2019
Hiking any trail can be tough enough with a chronic illness. You need to choose a trail to match your stamina and pain level, choose the gear you need when you begin and predict the gear you may need partway through your hike (polarized sunglasses is a staple for the former, and lately the latter consists of a knee brace and lighter backpack), be careful not to place unnecessary stress on yourself throughout the hike, and know when to turn back!
But what about other complications? As my title suggests, I’m talking about hiking with dogs. Now, dogs are valued members of the family and we take our dogs on all of our backcountry adventures. Our dogs, Texie and Aspen, relish in every opportunity to run through open fields, dig in the dirt, chase little critters on the trail, and in Texie’s case, plunge into water with every chance she gets.
Without a doubt, hiking is stimulating for dogs in ways that transcend the exercise component. And in many ways, it’s beneficial to bring your furry family members along on your outdoor excursions, especially for us Millennials who tend to have more furry kiddos than actual children. But when does a dog become more of a concern on the trail than an advantage?
Case in point--our dog Texie.
Texie, Our Goofy, Clumsy, Friendly American Bulldog Mix
We love our American Bulldog mix named Texie and try to be the best puppy parents we can. She's a goofy, lovable girl about whom I always say we wouldn’t laugh half as often without her around! Texie is the type of dog that greets you with the warmest, most energetic welcome every time you arrive home, even if you’ve only been away for five minutes. Time is totally irrelevant, she’s just happy to see you. And she shows it, standing there at the top of the stairs, full-body wagging, pounding her tail on the wall with a rhythmic beat.
Texie is also a clumsy, full-force ahead, act first, think later type dog. A former vet of Texie’s once described her as someone who “just really loves life.” How accurate that is! When Texie was younger and more flexible, her impulsive behavior caused few issues. We did have to cut Texie free from a briar bush one winter, which may have been avoided by removing her sweater prior to the hike. Picture our 80lb pup, standing solid as a statue, with briar branches wrapped around her like lights on a Christmas tree! Luckily her sweater was thick and so the briars caused no actual injuries or real danger.
As Texie ages, she is becoming more accident-prone. Her paws are magnets for goatheads, and she is having run-ins with cacti more frequently. On two separate occasions, Texie has managed to get part of a cholla cactus stuck on her paw. To remove the cholla, she uses the one tool available to her: her mouth. This results part of a cholla stuck to her lip and jowls, while also leaving cacti needles imbedded in her paws! We try to use the leash to navigate Texie around any cacti or goathead-bearing shrubs, but she is a strong and relentless girl who doesn’t watch what she’s doing so our efforts are not always successful.
Cacti and goatheads are not are only concerns either. Whenever we hike a trail with a steep slope, Texie must be kept on a short leash. We take the same precautions with our other dog, Aspen, but he is much more careful and observant of his surroundings (and has never been stuck by a cactus needle, never mind get a cholla stuck to him!).
And there’s one thing Texie can’t resist: water. If she’s off the leash and there’s any form of water anywhere nearby, she’ll find it! Once she spots water there’s no stopping her from plunging in. I'm sure this sounds familiar to many dog owners! Out of all these concerns, her affinity for water might be the most worrisome, especially with blue-green algae popping up in summer ponds and lakes across the country. Once a dog ingests even a small amount of blue-green algae, there’s little anyone can do to reverse the toxicity.
To top it off, she’s developed arthritis already. Considering recent incidents and the ever-increasing frequency of vet visits (many not trail-related), Stacia and I were recently forced into a difficult conversation: when should we start leaving Texie at home? At this point, the risks outweigh the benefits, though I know Texie would argue differently if she could!
Keeping Dogs Safe on the Trail
All dogs are different, and some dogs are more carefree, while others more cautious. There are several things I’ve learned in my six years hiking with Texie--the carefree type. Perhaps the most important lesson is that you can’t prevent all mishaps (unless you leave your dog at home), but you can take precautions to keep your dog safe!
1. Know Your Dog
When I’m on the trail admiring the scenery, snapping pictures, or focused on my aches and pains, I don’t always have my eyes or my complete focus on my dogs. But if you know your dogs tendencies, you can anticipate some of their actions. With Texie, we know she’ll inevitably trot through low-to-the-ground prickly pear cacti, or she’ll barrel down a steep slope without a care in the world, so we choose our trails wisely! Additionally, we’ve recently learned of her increased limitations as she ages. Texie is six and a half years old, and though that might not seem very old, she’s a big dog with arthritis that has never been good to her body! If she won't take caution for her own sake, we must be cautious for her.
2. Know Your Surroundings
This may seem obvious, but being aware of your surroundings for your own safety may not be the same as for your dogs’ safety. For example, let’s think about water. I know if I’m hiking without dogs, I’m not thinking about bodies of water nearby because I’m not at risk of spontaneously plunging myself into the water. But if your dog loves water, it’s a different story. Maintaining this type of awareness will allow you to prevent a fatal encounter with blue-green algae! Additionally, if you're hiking in areas known for predators that could endanger your dog's safety, it's important to keep you dog on the leash. Stacia, Texie and I once had a near-encounter with a group of wild boars while hiking in eastern Texas. By putting Texie on the leash and redirecting her attention away from the boars, we managed to skirt by the group of boars and keep this incident a 'near-encounter' and not an actual 'encounter.' All in all, if you’re aware of your surroundings with an eye toward your dogs, you can anticipate when it’s best to keep your dogs on-leash, and when it’s safe to let them roam.
3. Carry Gear For Your Dog
When I hike, I always bring plenty of fresh water and a folding water dish for our dogs. But we also travel with other gear, most which would be useful to a human as it would a dog. It’s essential to hike with some type of knife--a frequently used tool. Having to cut our dog loose from a briar bush, we never hike without one! We also hike with, and keep at the ready, a multi-tool that includes pliers to pull a cholla cactus off of Texie! Recently, I began packing tweezers as well, since some thin cactus needles will break when pulled by pliers. In the desert, I always keep a snake-bite kit. For any hike, it’s important to carry some first-aid items (gauze, alcohol pads, tape), which can be used on a dog just as on a person. I also like to carry items to create a fire, such as a flint striker tool, a small candle, and a lighter. All items might save you and your dog in an emergency!
In conclusion, we all love our dogs and want to keep them safe. But even the best, most observant dog owners can’t predict every dog behavior or every danger on the trail! I consider myself a good dog mom, but lean toward trusting my dogs with some freedom on the trail for a more enjoyable hiking experience. While it’s important to observe dog tendencies and limits to avoid any potential issues, it’s also important to note how those limits change as they age. And of course, always be prepared!