Lecture: Hiking with Dogs
Five years ago, when I struggled on the 1872 foot ascent of Rock Castle Gorge, Tony Airaghi encouraged me to take my time and then he said something that I expect to remember for years to come:
We aren’t here to kill ourselves. We’re here to have a good time.
I think about Tony’s statement almost every time I take a break and at times I paraphrase it to struggling strangers. And today, I declare with great conviction – That goes for dogs as well.
This weekend at McAfee’s Knob, we encountered a hiker with a female dog that was obviously struggling. Slow and stiff, she was not enjoying the ascent.
“How old is that dog?” I asked.
“Fourteen,” the owner replied.
Apparently, the owner could tell what I was thinking.
“It’s okay,” the owner added, “I gave her two [painkillers] this morning.”
First off–just because you drug a dog does not mean it is not injuring itself. Second off– what does it say if you drug a dog and it is STILL hurting?!?
Just a little while later, we could see this poor dog try to call it quits. Not once, but TWICE, the dog crawled off to the side of the trail and tried to lay down under the shade. Even from my vantage point, I could clearly see its legs shaking.
Both times, the owner became very frustrated, yelled at the dog and yanked it back up.
Dogs go out of their way to please their owners. If a dog is trying to lay down while you are walking, it is DONE.
Even though the owner and the dog eventually made it to the top and probably did not need to have the dog carried down the mountain on a stretcher, it is my personal assessment that they should have turned around. The moment it was clear this was no longer fun for the dog is when the return trip should have commenced. You got out, you enjoyed the day, summon the strength to wuss out, for goodness sake.
As Jimmie and Henry continue to age, it is a very real concern of mine that I will push them too far. So I’m constantly assessing (aka worrying about) their readiness. I’m already accepting that both dogs may have made their last trip up to Dragon’s Tooth. Anything six miles or over, I make a call about Henry (who has some back problems) on a case by case basis. He hasn’t done anything over ten miles since 2006. He’s sat out my last two birthday hikes. Even smaller hikes, like Pearis Mountain in the snow, I leave him behind if he seems sore. Henry did join us at McAfee’s Knob this past weekend. With him in mind, we took the less strenuous fire road for the first 2.5 miles and watched him for signs of soreness.
Now, it’s never easy to leave either dog behind. They are well conditioned to know what the hiking boots and the backpack mean and get extremely excited when those items emerge (for my last birthday hike, I actually hid my boots the night before so Henry wouldn’t see me get them in the morning). When I do leave either one behind, I can hear a lot of crying as I get in my car. It makes me sad. They want to come along so badly. But you know what? I know where we are going– they don’t. I know the ascent, the length and typically have an idea of the terrain. They don’t.
So I do my very best to use that extra knowledge to make a decision that is best for the dog. It’s not always black and white. One day I very well may make the wrong call. And if I do– I’ll turn around.
I’m not out there to kill myself or my dogs. I’m out there for all of us to have a good time.