It’s a beautiful sunny day. Blue sky above and green trees line a dirt path. Your dog bounds down the trail, turning back just before she would slip out of sight along the horizon with a dopey, tongue out grin.
Almost every outdoorsy person and dog lover has a version of this romantic vision. Bringing your dog on an outdoor adventure can add a lot of joy to the experience. And dogs can also be vital assets. They can find the best route up a sketchy scramble or the calmest area for a river crossing. Relying on their instincts is sometimes better and more helpful than your knowledge.
But the reality of owning a dog can be very different for people who love a variety of outdoor activities. Adding a dog to your outdoor routine comes with many challenges. Suddenly the places you can explore are limited, the weight you have to carry in food and water has increased, and you have to re-learn the dangers of the outdoors for your four-legged hiking partner.
I spoke to seven outdoorsy dog parents about the joys and struggles of bringing a pet into the wilderness.
Outdoorsy Dog Owners Confess: It Isn’t Always Easy
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“I get extreme guilt if I’m in nature without her, so we plan our lives around activities she can come on,” Jenna Celmer said of her mutt Sam said. “I have no problem just going on an awesome hike in Colorado backcountry.”
Jenna focuses her time on the places she knows Sam can run off-leash. She’d rather bring her than leave her at home to go to a national park or ski resort.
While having a dog might initially feel limiting, it can also open an owner’s eyes to more obscure trails. Stephen Martin and his dog Ollie have found there’s much more to Colorado than just Rocky Mountain National Park.
“People think it’s the only thing good to go see, but you can’t go there with a dog,” he said. “Going a step down from what is considered the best or the most famous or influential places and understanding that there is so much more.”
Annie MacWilliams had to change her perspective drastically after getting her dog, Bruce. Bruce has partial kidney failure, anxiety and a prognosis of only 2-4 more years. Without the athleticism to keep up with MacWilliams’ traditional 20-mile backpacking trips, she had to switch gears.
“I started looking at the really short backpacking trips, the ones I had always overlooked in the past,” she said. “That three-mile out and back to a lake seemed silly before, but now my goals have shifted. I don’t want to drop him at a dog sitter for six months so I can through-hike. When I take him, I focus on it being his time outside.”
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It can still be a battle to push your comfort zone as Alexandra Lev and her two Siberian huskies, Tucker and Fiona, understand.
“It’s easy to get in the habit of going to the same trails or the dog park because you are overwhelmed but there are plenty of resources to help you explore elsewhere,” Lev said.
One of those resources is Emma Walker and her experiences with her dog Bodhi. Walker literally wrote the book on helping other outdoorsy dog owners find places to hike. But sometimes, bringing the dog isn’t in the best interest of the owner or the dog.
“I wish I could bring Bodhi everywhere with me, but the reality is there are trips I want to do [where] itjust doesn’t make sense to take him,” she said. “If I’m not convinced he would actually enjoy the activity, I leave him at home. The big question for me is always: Would my dog enjoy this? Would he think it was fun and wag his tail or would he just be nervous?”
Some owners have learned the skills to bring their dogs on extreme adventuring. Martin and Ollie have done 37 fourteeners in Colorado together and are aiming for the rest. Michael Gulsvig learned to climb and rappel down slot canyons with his four-legged partner.
“A friend of mine made a comment that Melvin and I were dancing during a climb,” he said. “We knew exactly what the other was going to do. Just like climbing partners, there are some you trust more and there’s just that indescribable connection and trust between us.”
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Austin Parker takes his Catahoula Leopard dog, Scout, and his Australian Cattle dog, Ari, all over Utah. From backcountry skiing to mountain bike riding, Parker has learned the nuances of adventuring with a dog. For skiing, he knows it’s important to teach your dogs to avoid getting cut on the skis. On long hiking trips, Parker makes sure to adjust their packs to find hot spots and areas that are in danger of being rubbed raw.
Mountain biking is one outdoor activity that dog parents find especially challenging when they try to bring the dogs. The ground is hot and rough, so even just after five or six miles, Parker and others have noticed their animals limping.
“Her pads were torn up but she was still trying to run with the bikes,” he said. “I ended up having to take a sixty-pound dog and throw her over my shoulder, hold onto her with one hand, the handle bars with the other and bike back to the car. That was definitely a lessoned learned.”
Companies like Ruffwear create booties for just these environments, and Gulsvig suggests always bringing an extra in case one gets lost, as one always seems to. But once you’ve learned the tricks for 10-mile backcountry ski loop or even just going up your local dog-friendly trail, the end result is pure happiness for both owner and pet.
“It brings me a lot of joy to see my dogs having fun on the trails,” Parker said.“When I’m driving home and I’ve got two dogs hanging out the windows, that’s about as close to heaven as I can imagine.”