Dogs on the Trail
It was the sweetest little, chocolate lab puppy, soft and wobbly on its legs. “How old”? I asked, stroking its soft fur. “8 Weeks”, the young woman answered as she held him in her arm, “he can walk along.” She put the pup on the ground and he walked circles around her leg. “You’re thru-hiking?”, I asked, for we were on the Pacific Crest trail in northern Washington state. “Yes”, she answered, “I just picked up this puppy at my resupply stop?” I couldn’t believe my ears. She was taking an 8-week puppy on a thru hike? That’s dog abuse, I mused. “Will you carry the dog and his food all the way? That will add a lot of weight,” I asked, hoping I heard her wrong. “Yep,” she said, “I’ll let him walk when he can. He’s good company.” I couldn’t believe my ears.
On another stretch of the Pacific Crest trail I met a man with an adult dog, who carried his food in a dog backpack. He explained to me that he needed the dog for comfort, to help him with his PTSD. I asked how the dog was holding up on the long trail. He said, “my dog comes first, I adjust daily mileage to my dog’s ability. We don’t often do more than 10 miles in a day. He needs his rest.” This man respected his dog and the dog served him.
Dogs have served man since time memorial. According to scientists, dogs were domesticated anywhere from 30,000 years ago, to 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time for man and animal to bond, and evolve together. Dogs were present in great numbers in North America before the Europeans set foot here; they were present before Europeans introduced horses. Most likely dogs evolved from a less fierce breed of wolves, who came around hunter/gatherer tribes and found they could scavenge for left-over carnage.
On my travels in Asia, I walked around mountain villages where packs of dogs roamed the dirt streets. Packs of Mastiffs roamed the high plains in Tibet. I took care to avoid them, as I didn’t want to be attacked. These semi-feral dogs get fed by owners when they go home at night, but they roam freely, and assert wolflike behavior: they run in packs, they hunt for food together. I was forewarned. They can be dangerous. I walked with a stick in one hand, a rock in the other.
In my new community I rarely see children out and about, but dogs are aplenty, with or without owners. Northern New Mexico appears to be a crossroads between civilized society and the wild West: dogs have homes, but they escape the unfenced properties and the owners are always looking for their dogs when they don’t come home at night.
In my earlier home state of Southern Oregon, I hiked in the hills and mountains. When I hiked near a town on a developed trail, dogs were running loose despite a leash ordinance. When a dog would jump up on me, or growl at me, the owners would tell me, “the dog is friendly, he/she never acts this way.” i don’t enjoy being jumped on by a friendly dog. Talking with owners was a losing battle. I stepped aside, asked the owner to leash the dog so I could pass.
Wilderness trails have provided me with freedom from having to deal with dogs. Most of the time. I enjoy being in nature and knowing wild animals will avoid people 99% of the time. I don’t mind co-existing with animals if there’s mutual respect and distance. When I encounter wild animals on the trail, I keep my distance and observe.
I’m not against dog ownership. With ownership comes responsibility. I have owned a dog. There is a grand-dog in my house occasionally. It’s a pleasure to be greeted when I get home by another creature who loves me unconditionally.
Recently, on a XC-ski outing, a dog belonging to another XC-skier jumped on me from behind, throwing my ski from under me and straining/tearing a muscle. Excited dogs, running loose in the snow, make holes in the ski track, are a danger for skiers. Owners tell me that the dog loves the snow, so they bring the dog on outings where other skiers are present. Would you bring a hyper child to an athletic activity that takes the athlete’s focus, and let him/her run around among the athletes? I wish people wouldn’t treat their dogs as if if they are their child, and give them the same status as humans.
With so many dogs running loose, on trails and roads, I fear taking my grand-dog on a leashed walk around the mesa. I may meet other loose dogs who will become aggressive.
We live in a dangerous world. Stories of drive-by shootings in big cities, pick-pockets in crowded train stations, people with guns going into big box stores, abductions in cartel controlled regions, make the news. I’m privileged and have lived in safe places all my life. But with an exploding dog population, I’ve lost my nerve to go out on the trails frequented by other people and their dogs.
i want to walk, travel, see the mountains, and visit unknown places. Fear of the unknown has never stopped me, and luckily I have never encountered a dire, dangerous situation. I don’t want to walk with fear. Adding pepper spray to my hiking essentials might be necessary.
We’re connected as creatures on this planet. We need to care for each other and our domesticated animals, and not let our love for our dog rule the roost and put the dog or others at risk.
Below, enjoy some of the creatures I've encountered on the trail.