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Hiking with Man’s Best Friend

by Cyndie Shaffstall

As I have gotten older, I have become more passionate and concerned about our four-legged friends. Recently, when the end came for my aged boxers, I adopted a four-year-old amputee boxer and her twin. The personalities of these two were well established by the time they moved into my house (and heart), and the four-legged sister considers it her role in life to protect her disabled sister. I am thoroughly enjoying the activity level of these two and the ability to hike our national parks (which my older boys couldn’t muster), but this has recently been marred by uncomfortable run-ins with other pet owners.

For the second trail hike in a row, I have been approached by dogs off lead. Both times, as the dogs approached my girls, I have asked the owners to get their dogs under control or put on a leash. My worry and insistence increased as the dogs got closer and my two reacted—one in fear and the other in defiance. My requests were met with outrage, name calling, and indignation—usually while insisting their dog is friendly. Neither of the hostile pet owners gave a moment’s consideration to the state of my dogs: terror, disabled, need to protect, ability to escape, and size. It wasn’t a simple matter of a single friendly personality, one would have to consider three personalities.

While the amputee trembled in terror and tried to escape the fast-approaching dogs, her sister went on guard—me tethered to both. As such, I was the most likely to have been bit in a possible escalation, despite being the only one taking care to keep her dogs close and safe, while ensuring other hikers and their dogs were able to enjoy the same trails.

The first dog to approach us was a 100+ lb lab, who came barreling at my girls like a freight train. In spite of my increasingly frantic demands she control her dog, the owner eventually sauntered up—having made no move whatsoever to prevent her dog from reaching us. At 45 lbs, my four-legged girl was ready to take him on in an effort to protect her sister; it was all I could do to stay in front to prevent a conflict—myself afraid of the dog’s size and speed at which he was approaching. The second incident included two dogs off lead, and the owner was unable to control both at the same time. She threw expletives my way as I tried to get safely past her, pointing out she was on a trail requiring leashes.

In most national parks and specifically on trails, pets are permitted, but where they are allowed they must be restrained either on a leash not exceeding six feet in length, caged, or crated—at all times. Given this, I am mystified by these two women’s hostile and verbally abusive responses. Common sense would lead one to realize not all dogs are of equal confidence, size, or ability and that even when you do have a friendly dog, it should be under your direct control as you approach others. If the other owner has a dog with the same eagerness to meet new friends, together you can let that happen; but for those of us with timid (or small, or disabled) dogs, we can continue quietly on our way without incident.

Other dogs are certainly not the only consideration one should have. Small dogs are particularly vulnerable offlead in the forests, where large predatory animals roam and hunt, and dogs of all sizes are often willing to give chase to scampering wildlife—some of which might well turn the tables on your pet and the chased becomes the chaser. If your dog approaches a person who comes to feel threatened, there is a sizeable risk they may lash out to protect themselves or their family. Most committed hikers carry bear spray, pepper spray, or a club of some sort, and reasonably, when approached by a dog, they could react with force or violence. What’s more, allowing your dog to run through underbrush, they are more susceptible to picking up ticks or encountering vegetation, carcasses, or stagnant water, which may be harmful when ingested. Another consideration should be that many of the hiking trails cross motorized trails, which also present a danger to your pets.

The national parks are truly the treasure professed by the states in which they are located, but they are a treasure each of us has the right to enjoy without fear or conflict. If you feel the same way about your pet as I do mine, I know how much you enjoy their company on your hikes; but please, don’t forget to take your leash along and use it (at least) when approaching others. It’s the neighborly thing to do.