The Engearment team loves our adventure dogs! From winter camping to desert mountain bike trips, wherever we go, our dogs go.
Before heading into the backcountry with your dog, there are some things to consider: overall preparedness, trail etiquette, canine first aid, gear, and breed.
On Thursday, June 20 at 7 PM, our friends at Arc’teryx Denver are hosting a “Trails and Tails” presentation on how to take adventure dogs along with you in the backcountry from expert dog trainer and former mountain guide, Gavin Ehringer.
The owner of Ohana Canine Training of Denver and author of Leaving the Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows and Horses, Ehringer shared some candid thoughts with us in a pre-Outdoor Retailer interview.
Did you know that dogs need to adequately prepare for the big hikes, just like humans? Dogs need to be physically prepared and trained to have excellent recall.
“You need to toughen dogs up for long excursions. The good news is, they get fit faster and easier than we do,” said Ehringer.
Keeping dogs physically fit through agility training, frisbee hikes and even bike rides (Ehringer has a special leash arm attached to the frame of his Schwinn Cruiser) is highly recommended. Puppies as young of 12 weeks of age can be introduced to short, easy hikes, he said assuredly.
The backcountry is full of dangers.
Unfortunately, dogs getting lost in the backcountry is not uncommon. Social media this last ski season was peppered with posts from people desperate to reunite with dogs lost in the mountains.
Sometimes, stories make national news. In 2017, a 14-year-old lab-pit bull mix named Chloe somehow survived for over a month on Mt. Bros before being rescued. Perhaps the most infamous story was in 2012, when a German Shepherd named Missy (renamed Lucky) was left behind for eight days and seven nights on Mt. Bierstadt. After she lacerated her paws over the Sawtooth ridge and could no longer walk, her owner and his friend struggled to bring her back down after two hours and reluctantly abandoned her due to their own exhaustion and avoiding inclement weather that was rapidly approaching.
“Be attentive to the dog’s health. Dogs don’t care if they summit. They just want to be with you. Don’t overexert your animal!” He emphasized.
“You absolutely need a reliable recall…it’s sad when a dog gets lost in the hills. Most are found, eventually, but others die from a myriad of causes. I guess all I can say is, the backcountry has its dangers. Be realistic … is taking your dog along to bag a peak worth the risks? How would you feel if your dog got swept away in an avalanche? Be sensible,” cautioned Ehringer.
One other thing that hikers might not consider when taking their adventure dogs outdoors is bad weather- especially lightning and thunder. Can you prepare your dog for lightning and thunder before taking them out? Actually, yes.
According to Ehringer, lightning and thunder can scare a dog and cause it to run far away. He suggested acclimating your dog before hitting the trail by playing recorded lightning and thunder sounds (found on YouTube) at progressively louder volumes.
Also, he cautioned against trying to comfort your dog if you find yourselves caught in a lightning storm- it just makes the fear worse. Act natural (which it is, after all).
“If you see storm clouds arising, keep your dog tethered to you with a leash, get out of exposed areas and wait the storm out calmly,” he advised.
On any given day in Colorado, trails are crowded with cyclists, runners and hikers with their dogs.
According to Ehringer, dogs must be exceptionally well trained in specific commands (walking behind the owner, reliable recall, and being able to heel) if an owner is to take them out on the trails, and, speaking from his own experience, they must follow trail rules.
“Trail etiquette with canines is a lengthy topic, but I’ll hit the high points. More and more, the park services require that dogs be leashed on trails. And they’re enforcing those rules. After decades of unleashed travel, I recently incurred a $50 fine from Smokey the Bear. Ouch! So, bottom line, be aware of and follow the rules governing dogs in the backcountry,” he said.
“I think these rules exist because, honestly, few people can control their dogs. As a whole, dogs represent a danger to other hikers, wildlife, and fragile ecosystems. Horsemen, especially, are at risk from loose and unruly dogs. It’s a long fall off the back of a spooked horse trying to escape a menacing mutt,” he continued.
According to Ehringer, If you are going to take your dog to off-leash areas, there are three essential commands it must know, with precision.
First, teach your dog to walk behind you on command. You have very little control over a dog that’s ahead of you.
Second, 100 percent reliable recalls. That means, the dog comes on the first call, as fast as possible, and sits at your feet awaiting a leash.
Finally, the dog should know to heel on command and sit off-trail to allow others to pass.
Just as any backcountry traveller should take a wilderness first-aid course every couple years, if you take your dog into the mountains, you should too.
A first-aid class teaches you how to identify and treat a variety of medical issues, including things like heat stroke, dehydration, cuts, broken bones, snake bites, etc.
“People aren’t aware enough. A dog may show signs of heat exhaustion that an owner simply doesn’t recognize until it’s a full-on emergency. Some people can’t detect a limp, or if they do, they don’t know how to assess whether it’s minor, like muscle soreness, or something serious, like a torn cruciate ligament,” Ehringer said.
Rattlesnakes are a big concern in Colorado. If your dog likes to stick its nose into everything, he suggests taking a snake-proofing class through a hunting club. Similarly, you can “critter proof” your dog for a variety of animals – porcupines, badgers, and the like. But the best protection, in his opinion, is to have an unfailing recall command and dogs trained to get behind you and stay behind you.
SUMMERTIME AND SEASONAL GEAR
In 2014, Kurgo, the leading maker of outdoor and travel products for pets, debuted at Outdoor Retailer Summit in Salt Lake City.
Kurgo’s presence made everyone aware of a potentially gigantic market synergy between pet product manufacturers and outdoor retailers. Pet products are a $60 billion a year industry, so naturally outdoor retailers want in on that action.
How to differentiate between what a dog needs in the backcountry, as opposed to gear comes across as affectatious?
While Ehringer considers most pet clothes as silly, he does think some seasonal gear makes sense. For example, in the fall he recommends getting your dog a blaze-orange vest for visibility during hunting season.
“In the summertime, I do think cooling coats are a great idea. They can be wetted and applied to the body to help bring down a dog’s core temp. If you’re taking the dog on a leisurely raft trip, get him or her a life preserver,” he said.
Planning on taking your dog on long hikes? Inspect gear for proper fit and bring a long a pair of spare booties.
“If you take your dog on hikes and use a harness or a doggy backpack (handy for carrying food), make sure it fits and inspect your dog on the trail for signs of chafing.
Dogs’ foot pads are pretty tough. If you feel you need booties for ultra-long distance trips, you should probably leave the dog at home. But it’s a good idea to carry a pair of booties in your first aid kit in case the paws sustain a wound, such as a sliced or friction-burned pad.
Be strategic about your hikes and plan for water stops, he advises.
“I typically read trail maps and guidebooks to scout for streams and lakes, and plot the distances between them, etc. That way, the dog can replenish without me carrying lots of water along- just make sure the water sources have not dried up!” he maintained.
Finally, do not shave your dog’s coat in the summer. The hair helps insulates dogs from heat and protects the skin from sunburn. Yes, dogs get sunburned too. Protect your dog’s exposed skin by using sun block. Waterproof sunblock with zinc oxide is recommended for dogs with light spots on the nose.
IDEAL ADVENTURE DOGS
What makes an ideal adventure dog? Ehringer prefers moderate-sized athletic dogs.
“I like herders and hunting breeds best. Both types are built ruggedly for the outdoors. Breeds such as border collies, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, labradors, retrievers, and terriers typically thrive outdoors,” he enthused.
According to him, giant breeds like St. Bernards and Bernese Mountain Dogs overheat easily. Small dogs, like the toy breeds, simply lack stamina. He said, in particular, to avoid the flat-faced breeds such as pugs, English bulldogs, boxers, Frenchies, etc. as they are very prone to overheating due to their short, over-crowded airways.
“Of course, there are exceptions, but if I’m gonna bet on a dog, it’s gonna be mid-sized dog between, say, 30 and 70 pounds and 18 to 26 inches at the shoulder,” he finished.
Meet Ehringer and his adventure Aussies in person at Trails and Tails: Taking Your Dogs Into the Backcountry this Thursday, June 20 from 7 to 8 PM at Arc’teryx Denver located at 250 Columbine Street Suite 110, Denver, CO 80206.
For a decade, Ehringer worked as an adventure travel guide leading backcountry horse trips, backpacking trips, mountain bike rides, cross-country skiing, and alpine climbs.
Beginning in the late 1980s, he was accompanied by an Australian Shepherd puppy. Since then, he and his adventure dogs have gone everywhere in the West, from Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, from deserts and beaches to mountain summits. Never without a dog, he is currently on his ninth and tenth Aussies.