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.

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