Archive for July, 2008

Tough choices: safety v. freedom

Thanks to everyone who attended my Hiking with Dogs presentation at the Washington Trails Association TrailsFest. It was a wonderful event, and I was honored to be a part of it. One of my topics — a perennial topic — was whether dogs should be off-leash in the backcountry. While most of my advice suggested erring on the side of a leash, I know that there are times when a well-trained dog is so good it hardly seems necessary.

Today, I learned the sad story of Casey, a 12-year-old Labrador/Shepherd mix, who was euthanized after suffering severe injuries as the result of a fall during a hike in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. The announcement came to me from DoveLewis, an awesome 24-hour Emergency and ICU Animal Hospital in Portland. While it’s fuel for keeping dogs tethered, my first reaction was not: Why wasn’t that dog on a leash? My first reaction was those poor people; this is going to haunt them for a very long time. A few hours later, DoveLewis sent out a follow-up press release that put the guardians’ grief and guilt in a considered and compassionate context. I thought it was worth a read.

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Advice for flying canines

A writer-friend of mine, Susan, recently adopted a retired service dog, Joplin, from an organization in Toronto. Another friend, Harriet, who writes about airports for a living, agreed to collect the dog — and in the process, check out at least three airports. It turned into a 24-hour planes-trains-and-automobiles epic, which I won’t relate here since I’m guessing at least one of them will squib about it somewhere, but I did glean a fairly excellent bit of flying-your-dog advice from a kennel north of the border.

When you load up your dog, include a bowl in which the water has been frozen, so that it melts during the flight and is less likely to slosh around during the early loading phases. Also, create a bedding of shredded paper on top of a rubber mat: It’s soft, absorbent and disposable. One other thing, and I hope I’m not giving too much away here, be sure you’ve got a regulation travel crate held together with metal fasteners!

Check out Harriet’s blog: Stuck at the Airport.

The sweet smell of fur?

In Dog Park Wisdom, I related the advice of adding a tea bag to your vacuum bag to fight against the smell of hot fur bunnies. I recently demonstrated this kernal of housekeeping wisdom for the folks at Evening Magazine using Seattle’s own MarketSpice Tea. The aroma of orange and cinnamon is a big improvement on dog fur. Bev Sparks chimed in an alternative for tea-free homes: dryer sheets. She’s right; it works like a charm. I haven’t calculated which is more economical.

Fording streams with dogs

In response to a post about my Hiking with Dogs presentation at Trailsfest on Saturday, one commenter said she lost her unleashed dog when she forded a stream during a backcountry trip. And only yesterday, another serious outdoorsman told me the story of friends whose Golden Retriever disappeared forever in a fast-flowing current. All of which reminded me of a section on fording rivers in the original draft of Dog Park Wisdom that ended up slashed by a zealous editor. Here’s the rough cut — and some food for thought for folks hiking near rivers with their dogs.

River crossings can be a challenge with a dog, even a strong swimmer. Jim Greenway, an avid hiker and top dog at the Traildogs group on Yahoo, provided these strategies for fording rivers, streams and swamps with your dog.

  • Get your dog comfortable wading and swimming before leaving for the big trip.
  • If your dog doesn’t like water, stream fords are going to be a challenge. That’s particularly true if the crossing involves hip-deep water in which the dog has no other choice than to swim for it. I would omit the previous sentence as being patently obvious if it weren’t for the fact that I ran into at least one hiking party that was stuck with carrying a dog because he wouldn’t swim. Try that in places such as north Georgia’s Jacks River Trail, with almost three-dozen river crossings, and you won’t soon forget it.
  • Carrying a dog isn’t a viable option. Most river crossings involve riverbeds with slick rocks. It may be difficult enough to keep your footing with only a pack. Carrying a dog raises your body’s center of gravity and makes it harder to balance on the rocks. A slip and fall could injure both of you and frighten the dog so much that he or she doesn’t want to be carried again. If carrying is a must, consider leaving your pack and taking your dog across first. Leash the dog to a tree, and then make a return trip to retrieve your pack.
  • Learn to appreciate the power and hazards in water. Hikers often lack any experience with gauging a river’s hazards. They look upriver to see the current, without realizing it’s what’s downriver that can really hurt them. What only looks like a fallen tree in the river may also be a deadly “strainer.” Many people don’t realize that river current tends to suck dogs (and hikers) down and into the strainer, rather than over or around them. Large rocks are both a collision hazard as well as a danger for “undercuts,” or pockets of recirculating current that can trap dogs. Dogs and most people tend to try to swim away from hydraulics at the surface. It’s difficult enough to even figure out where the surface is. The best escape route is to try to swim out of the bottom of the hydraulic. It’s tough explaining that to the dog.
  • How close to keep your dog? This is a toss-up, especially if it’s just you and the dog. A panicked dog may try to climb onto your back. That’s a bad move. The only preventative is to get your dog comfortable in swimming before the trip. Don’t tie on the dog. If he gets into trouble, he may pull you down with him.
  • Look for the calmest spot to cross. That may or may not be the prescribed crossing. It may also mean that you both have to swim because the river is deep there.
  • Gauge the current. Remember, most land managers select river crossings with the idea that humans are walking across. Current has a relatively minor effect on that. Your dog, however, is probably going to float downstream—and fast. Launching your dog from the prescribed crossing point may mean that your dog will be pushed downstream to a bank or cliff that’s too steep for an exit. Once a dog misses a safe exit point, he may be washed downstream for some distance. If he panics at missing the exit point, the dog may become so exhausted he can’t escape the water.
  • Throw in a stick and watch how fast it moves downstream. Use your experience with your dog’s swimming speed to figure out where you must launch your dog upstream in order for him to swim to a safe exit point downstream. Trust your gut. If a crossing looks “iffy,” don’t try it
  • Remove the dense stuff from the dog backpack. A dog pack can provide a lot of flotation and take some of the work out of the swim. An overstuffed can create resistance.
  • Beware gators in swamp crossings. There are areas, such as the Florida Trail, where big sections are waded or forded. These areas usually have alligators. Alligators eat dogs. I’d be very reluctant to let a dog swim in those areas. This might be the only instance when I recommend carrying the dog over the shoulders and around the neck.

While Greenway says a leash may cause trouble for humans in a crossing, other hikers told me a leash is a necessity. A Portland-based packer uses harnesses on her dogs and leads them across with a long line tied to her horses. “The dog can slip out of a collar from the drag of the water,” she warns. Also, Justin Lichter rarely keeps Yoni’s pack on for a tough crossing. With more than 20,000 trail miles under his belt, he removes her backpack and attaches it to his, then holds her leash and collar with his downstream hand, and walks with her close to him.

We’ll continue the conversation about dogs in streams and on trails tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Outdoor Classroom at Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend, Washington. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Remains of the dog

I recently had my hair coiffed by a pug-mad stylist named Laura (she co-owns Halo in Seattle). We talked dogs, of course, and, eventually, she told me about two fawn-colored fur buddies she had to say goodbye to over the years. Her current pup rides around town in a bicycle basket. On the subject of memorializing lost dogs, I talked about how my late dog’s ashes are buried in my backyard garden. Much as I love enjoying the flowers and my dog’s role in that beauty, I worry about the day we move. That’s where Laura’s memorial to her dogs seems like the way to go. When the time came, she mixed some of her pugs’ ashes with potting soil in a container and then planted the containers with flowers and grasses that reminded her of her lost beloved. What I love about this idea is you get the beautiful cycle of life experience but never have to leave your dog behind.

Talking trail dogs, July 19

This Saturday, I will share some trail-tested wisdom from human-dog hiking duos during a presentation entitled Hiking with Dogs at the Washington Trails Association’s annual outdoor recreation festival, Trailsfest. Together with Craig Romano, author of Best Hikes with Dogs Inland Northwest, I’ll talk trail etiquette, dog gear, conditioning and other strategies for enjoying the great outdoors with a canine sidekick. Trailsfest is free and runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rattlesnake Lake in North Bend, Wash. Hiking with Dogs begins at 2 p.m. in the Outdoor Classroom. I hope I’ll see you there, but keep in mind, folks are not encouraged to bring dogs to Trailsfest.

Summer reading

The BARk gave Dog Park Wisdom the paws-up this month. I always appreciate any nod from that pub’s discerning editors because they pretty single-handedly created the modern dog magazine — filled with top-drawer coverage of canine health, behavior, sports, lifestyle, and cultcha (art and literature inspired by our best friends). Plus, I’m in some pretty fine company this month: the July-August issue includes Tobias Wolff fiction, Mary Oliver poetry, and a short memoir from Nic Scheff, author of Tweak. If you’re not a subscriber (why?), grab a copy off the newsstand and head for the hammock.