I like to adventure (scramble, climb, hike, sleep in the backcountry, splitboard, cross country ski, trail run, etc…). As much as possible, I like to bring my adventure dogs along with me. Cody and Buffy have both summited mountains, been on backcountry treks, skijored and been backcountry skiing with me. This post is all about some of my basic tips for having fun in the mountains with your dog safely. It goes without saying though, use your judgment to adapt these to your dog and your adventures. What’s right for us, is not going to work for everyone.
Know your dogs stamina
Imagine you have never hiked a day in your life (maybe you haven’t, that’s totally ok, we all start somewhere) and your best buddy dragged you up a 1,000 meter vertical gain trail, you might get up it, but you won’t be enjoying yourself and you’ll certainly feel it later. Our dogs can’t speak with us to say it’s too hard, and often they will push themselves past their limits. So if you are just starting to get your dog into hiking, take it easy for a bit. Taking it easier will also be a great time to start teaching them some important skills for the trail like loose leash walking.
A note about puppies: I’ve often been asked by clients if they can bring their puppies hiking. I think it’s beneficial for puppies to experience all the activities their guardians want to do with them. However, we can’t ignore that their growth plates have not closed and excessive exercise can be detrimental and potentially lead to issues down the line. If you’re debating this, I recommend speaking to your vet. I’ve always advised clients to speak with their vet, and if they go, make sure to allow the puppy to stop whenever they need to. Usually, you can accommodate bringing a puppy by carrying an empty backpack to put them in and carry them when they’ve had their fill.
The goldilocks temperature
Both my dogs have fairly thick coats but one of my dogs is a husky mix. Her fur is so thick that it’s hard to find the skin. So when it’s -35c outside, she is happy and content. My other dog, not so much. The reverse happens in the summer where my shepherd mix is all too happy to bathe in the sun all day and my husky mix spends the summer panting and trying to find shade or a pool to cool off. Knowing what your dog can handle for temperature is very important. Don’t assume that just because you can stay cool or warm that they can easily do that. In the summer months they need breaks to pant, drink and cool down. In the winter you may need to provide them with coats and booties if they don’t have a thick coat and depending on the physical level of your activity. It’s always a good idea to pick shorter objectives on really hot or really cold days, especially when you are getting to know what your dog can handle.
It comes without saying that we like to let our dogs off leash. When we head into the backcountry though, there are a lot of potential problems that can occur when your dog is off leash. I will let my dogs off leash sometimes but it’s usually only when the following conditions are met:
1. I am not in dense trees and I can see for miles.
2. There have been no recent wildlife sightings on that trail.
3. There aren’t a lot of other people or dogs around.
4. The leash-laws permit it. Please don’t abuse park leash-laws. This is how dogs get banned.
Practising your recall, especially distracted recalls, will pay off huge dividends when you need it out in the wild. Remember that having a dog off-leash greatly increases the consequences of running into a bear. Don’t be fooled into feeling safer with your k9 pal, the increase in risk from your pooch bounding around the woods off leash shouldn’t be ignored. If you don’t have good recall skills, then register for a recall clinic or hire a training to work on this. It is a skill you can improve greatly with the right instruction and support.
Always Leash on the summit
It’s always tempting in the alpine to unleash your pooch since you can usually see the terrain and any potential critters coming. I recommend leashing your dog up on the summit. Dogs can trip people which is something we really don’t want on the top of a mountain. But mostly, some dogs do not understand that you shouldn’t walk to the tip of the edge and lean over (rocks crumble – not a good idea). Both my dogs are very different on summits. Cody will stay a full foot or two from the edge before leaning to look over a little. Buffy will walk right up to the edge and scare the shit out of everyone on the summit. So yes, they are leashed up on top because geology is temporary, rocks break and I want to make sure that everyone gets home safe.
How to not get pulled down a mountain
So you summited your first peak with your dog or maybe you just hiked up a steep pass. Either way, now you have to go down and you are dreading it because your dog pulls. Loose leash walking is a skill everyone should work on but dogs are poor at generalizing and they may walk loose on a leash in the city and pull your arm off in the mountains. So instead, start teaching your pooch to stay behind you on the downhill. My dogs have learned this skill and as someone who spends a lot of time going down steep trails, it’s one of my favourite skills they have. As soon as the slope goes down they know to stick beside or behind me.
How do you train this? Well as always, the easiest and quickest way to train a dog is to use food. Dogs are motivated by food and we can use this motivation to show them exactly what we want. So if you’re willing to bring some treats with you (which you absolutely should), make sure your treats and dogs are on the same side (I.e. Your dog is on your right and so are your treats). Then grab a couple treats and work that loose leash walking as you go downhill. Be consistent with this and you will have a pooch who is happy and excited about the downhill.
If you don’t have food, then it’s gonna take a little longer. Basically you’re going to stop when they get ahead of you. Wait until they stop pulling then start to walk again. Make sure you praise your pup when they aren’t pulling. Use narrow trail to your advantage and get your pup behind you before you hike down them. However, be warned, this method is much slower than using treats and much harder to be consistent with since you’re inevitably tired and want to get home at the end of your hike.
Another great tool to consider is getting a Y shaped harness with a front and back clip. You can use the front clip while going downhill so that your dog cannot pull as hard. They are a great management tool while you’re training your pup to stop pulling.
These are just a couple of tips for getting out and adventuring with your k9 best friend. Mountain adventures with my dogs are some of my favourite adventures and I hope you’ll get out and enjoy your adventuring as much as I do.