Out and About
Have Hound, Will Hike
A dog can make a great hiking companion — if you're both prepared.
by Karen Ray
Training a young dog in the niceties of companion hiking sometimes brings the unexpected. Hiking in to a hot spring in the Gila National Forest is one of our favorite springtime trips here in southern New Mexico. The Gila Wilderness contains some of the roughest national forest area in the country and it can be a great place to hike with your dog if you plan and prepare.
A few years back we decided it was an opportune time to begin acquainting our young dog with the joys of the trail. Scout is a Husky-mix pound rescue who resembles a large, well-fed coyote. At the time of this outing he was not quite a year old, still in the throes of gangly canine adolescence. This six-mile hike was a great fit for our condition and skill level.
But the last section contains 14 river crossings. As rivers go, the Gila is a puny cousin of the Missouri or Mississippi, but not bad for a wild little southwestern waterway. In spring, even in drought, it is always in a varied flood stage due to winter snow melt higher up. This adds some excitement to what in summer are deliciously cold mid-calf water crossings.
We hiked along the dappled trail, watching Scout experience all the new smells of his first trip. He rapidly became more adroit at navigating, learning to give trees and rocks a wider berth to account for the light pack he carried. We had practiced with him at home taking walks and short hikes with the loaded pack. At the river crossings it became evident he was in his element as he dashed into the cold water and wriggled out on the other side, his abundant energy recharged.
At about crossing 10 I picked up a walking stick to steady myself against the strong current as we prepared to work our way across. My 35-pound pack helped anchor me to the riverbed. My husband and hiking buddy carries twice that, but it slows him down a bit so I can keep up. The man was born in the wrong century and could hike these mountains all day.
If either of us slips in a full pack, the high water and strong current will give us an exhilarating tumble down the river. We might even see our lives flash by a few times before we can get out of our packs. Hence, we stay together. Our system works like this: He crosses first and then I go over, so we won't both fall in at the same time. If he does go down, I can shout helpful words of encouragement to him when he comes up gasping for air. This is our form of marital bonding.
Mountain Man headed across first, pack loosened. I watched warily as he braced himself against the mid-thigh current. Scout, like his master, loves this and leaped into the water, swimming out to the middle and angling for the opposite shore as the current swept him downstream. He scrambled out on the other side, grinning happily. He had successfully escorted one human across and loved his job.
I was halfway over, mentally chanting, "Don't look at the water, look at the shore," when I saw the strobe light come on over his furry head and realized he was going to try and help me. Slow motion kicked in as I shouted, "Keep him away from me! He's coming in!" Planting the walking stick more firmly into the riverbed, I checked that my pack belt was unhooked in case I'd have to shed it in a hurry.
Scout bounded across the rocky shore, headed straight for me and convinced I am having as much fun as he was. My mind fast forwarded to the next few seconds when he would crash into me like some wet, smelly asteroid. Calculating which pack straps I could undo before he got to me, I simultaneously braced myself in the vain hope that I could keep my balance.
I was still yelling, "Stop the dog!" when my frantic prayer was heard and at the water's edge, he tripped, face-planted and flipped, cushioned by his doggie pack and effectively stopped in his errand of helpfulness. Chattering with cold, I stumbled across the last few feet of slick rocks and fast current. We got soaked by a great shake from the sodden pup, then pulled ourselves together and moved on down the trail in the brilliant spring sunshine.
I humbly relate this story to underscore the wisdom of using a leash or a harness in at least some of your hiking experiences with your dog — for his safety and yours. My husband could have restrained Scout while I crossed. An over-enthusiastic pup can potentially wreak a lot of havoc in the space of a few seconds.
The first step to enjoying New Mexico's beautiful country while hiking with your dog is to prepare her. Just as athletes condition for an event, so you need to help your pup strengthen her muscles and toughen her footpads. This is a great time for both of you, no matter your ages, to get in shape before you tackle that hike. Know the abilities of both yourself and your pet and remember to leave enough stamina, food and water to get back out from wherever you've hiked in to. Everyone will enjoy the trip much more if you take the time to prepare.
Doug Lacy, owner of the Pet Health Shoppe in Silver City, recommends incremental conditioning to prepare your dog for longer hikes. He says working up to two-hour hikes on steep terrain is a good idea. Both he and his sister, Kat Lacy, owner of Better Life Natural Pet Foods in Las Cruces, recommend the Baylor Canyon and "A" Mountain trails, which allow dogs on a leash. Kat also notes that some of the best local hikes for varied terrain are the Doña Ana Mountains, which have some great bike trails, and the Corralitos Ranch west of Las Cruces.
Doug is an avid hiker who has been enjoying the trails with his canine friend, Ludo, for five years. Ludo is a six-year-old Basset Hound. "He absolutely loves it," Doug says. "It's a great experience for sharing time with your dog. He can really grow up on a hike; he will learn to understand his place in the family. They really feel like they have a job to do." He says it is a great time to get to know each other better.
Kat recalls going to Stewart Lake in the Santa Fe National Forest: "It was grueling on us people. Ludo would go to the end of the trail and back. He was a riot; Bassets have that hysterical personality."
Prior to setting out on your hike, contact your local game and fish office or parks service and check on the leash regulations. This will avoid disappointment and a wasted trip if dogs are not allowed. In our southwest region there are many wonderful locations that welcome dogs, but do your research first.
Car sickness can complicate just getting to your hiking spot. Kat, who also writes a regular column for "Dog Cruces" magazine, says the most common cause of travel nausea is that the dog stresses during car rides. While Better Life does carry a product called "Happy Traveler," she also suggests desensitization training: Get your dog used to the car a bit at a time. You can use treats to help the dog learn that good things happen on car rides, not just a trip to the vet.
Out on your hike, Kat advises, "Training treats would be a good idea to keep your dog focused while out hiking." Good training not only works with the physical conditioning of your dog but also teaches him to pay attention to you. Teach him to walk either in front or behind you, not under your feet. A well-trained dog that responds to your commands and is calm and controlled around other dogs and people will be a pleasure to have along.
Katherine Aromaa of www.coopersdogtraining.com writes, "When taking your dog hiking and backpacking off leash, you must have voice control over your dog to keep your dog as well as other people, animals and the environment safe. When you take off that leash, you are taking more risk."
Doug Lacy cautions, "You want to be aware of how your dog will react if presented with a snake. You can use a shed snake skin to train them and get an idea how they will react." If the dog shows no alarm or tries to bite the snake skin, you will need to train her to be wary of snakes and not confront them. He says there are snake training classes available to condition your dog to react properly.
The majority of your hikes may require just a leash and some water, but it's a good idea to be prepared with a bag of easy-to-grab gear. You might include: leash, dog pack, portable water bowl or plastic baggies, paw protectors, snacks, first aid kit, collar and ID tags. My favorite "must try" idea is the hands-free leash with pockets by Outward Hound. This allows you to keep your hands free while still keeping your dog under control. Many pet-supply stores carry travel kits containing several basic items. It's easy to customize these with a few things essential to the type of hiking you and your pet do.
Dog packs vary in price and quality, from an entry-level pack for about $35 up to $180 for a sturdy camel pack with a water bladder. Ruffwear makes some packs that are convertible so you can use them as a harness for other hiking situations. Look for one with reflective trim to help keep your dog safe and in sight in low-light situations. Other packs have a pocket for a removable cold pack, which could greatly increase comfort on a hot day. Take your dog with you if possible to get the correct fit for his pack, or take good measurements if ordering online. The Colorado-based company Mountainsmith is "dedicated to the K-9 adventure experience" and has thorough online fitting guidelines.