This is how you see your trail dog.
This is how non-dog owners see your trail dog.
OK, that’s not even a canid, let alone a canine, but you get the point—we love our trail dogs so unconditionally that we don’t see their flaws. I’ve had three angelic trail dogs in my life. The first was a purebred English black Labrador, which apparently meant he’d been bred to have an outlandishly pure libido. He would hump dogs, cats (yes, we had a trail cat once), and hiker’s legs. But you’d never hear me utter anything but: “Who’s a good boy?” The second perfect trail dog was an intimidating German-shepherd and yellow-Lab mix with blazing speed, an insatiable predisposition for herding, and an anxiety disorder (she’d been abused by a previous owner as a pup.) On the trail, she’d run at other dogs until they got so frustrated that they attacked. That wasn’t cool, but, “Who’s a good girl?”
Before you get your hackles up, I am not anti-dog. My wife and I spoil ours and give them human names like Kramer (the black Lab) and Stella (the herding mutt). Our third dog, Roo, is an Alaskan husky and red cattle-dog mongrel out of Kansas that kills songbirds and squirrels but is as loving to humans as any therapy pooch—she waits at our fence each morning to greet passing school kids. Like all our dogs, Roo sleeps in our bed and is allowed on the couch. We walk her daily on trails and give her rawhide treats and rabies shots. After one day at the creek went awry, we paid real money for the ER to remove a punji stick near her femoral artery. I’m a dog lover in a family of dog lovers.
No matter how much we love them, though, our trail dogs are not all that. I think I’m a responsible trail-dog owner, but dog owners tend to inflate their ability when it comes to guardianship, just as they ignore the downsides of how they personally behave on trails. I can admit that now. Can you? The truth can be hard to stomach.
Many dog owners try to justify not picking up poop by referencing the bowel movements of coyotes, bears, and deer. They say that pet waste is natural, that it’s fertilizing the backcountry. I used to believe that drivel, too. But dog scheisse is nasty stuff. It’s often chock-full of pathogens, viruses, and parasites that don’t belong in the environment. When it rains, that fecal matter—and the stuff living in it—enters our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. The EPA says that dog waste, like pesticides and chemical fertilizers, is an environmental hazard.
There are 90 million dogs in the U.S. If allowed to shit where they might, those hounds would defecate in far greater quantities around population centers than coyotes and bears do. Our nation’s dogs produce 10.6 million tons of waste each year. In the Open Space and Mountain Parks land in Boulder County, Colorado, alone, an estimated 30 tons of dog waste is left annually, even as roughly three-quarters of dog walkers pick up after their pets. We pick up after our dogs (or we should) for the same reasons that we have public sewers. Handling warm crap through a veneer of plastic is disgusting, but seeing the refuse of dozens of dogs melting out of the snow is worse. As dog owners, we have a responsibility not to put parasites into the water that our neighbors recreate in and that wildlife drinks from.
Unfortunately, there’s a trend of late that sees dog owners bagging their dogs’ waste but then leaving it on the side of the trail. As bad as dog mess is, abandoned bags full of it are worse. Even the biodegradable Mutt Mitt plastic will last a year. If you leave a polyethylene bag from the grocery store in the wild, it could last a thousand years. This is happening: in a study of dog owners in Boulder conducted in 2018 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and Penn State University, 73.5 percent “immediately picked up their pet’s waste,” but that same study found that 13.7 percent “did not take all of the bags with them.” In Boulder, leaving such bags behind is called a “non compliant pet defecation event.” A city councilwoman once proposed that DNA be employed to track down the defecator’s owners, and trail advocates in Colorado recently made a push to end this bad habit. Their slogan, placed on an emoji of a pile of poo, is: “You are what you leave behind.” Get it?
Even the biodegradable Mutt Mitt plastic will last a year. If you leave a polyethylene bag from the grocery store in the wild, it could last a thousand years.
Shit is but one problem with trail dogs. There’s also dog-on-dog conflict. We think we know our pooches, but your dog at home on his flannel cushion is not the same beast as your dog in a brawling pack. Take the great to-leash-or-not-to-leash conundrum. If my dog is on a leash and your unleashed dog runs up to it, my sweet Mrs. Fluffy, feeling restrained and cornered, might lunge at your evil Mr. Devildog, fangs exposed. Whose fault is this? It’s hard to ascribe blame. My leashed dog with the PTSD (Stella) snipped at unleashed dogs. Last summer, when we let mellow Roo off the leash, she promptly ran up to a leashed dog to play and got snipped.
I was walking with a five-year-old Kramer off-leash once when a far larger dog sprang from the brush in an ambush attack and pinned him to the ground by his throat. I thought Kramer would die in my hands as I tried to wrest him away. They were both unneutered males. That might have had something to do with it. But who can say? They’re dogs. They do what they want. These types of interactions can also lead to human conflict, as bites occur when people try to interfere with the clashing of teeth.
To avoid this dynamic, we could all leash our dogs and rob them and their owners of much joy. Or we could let them run wild under so-called voice and sight command and hope for the best. But except for the most highly trained dogs and owners—rare breeds both—voice and sight command is largely bullshit when other dogs are involved. In another Boulder-based study (from 2011), this one an effort by Open Space and Mountain Parks to certify the compliance of dog owners with the city’s voice and sight rules, conflicts returned to pre-certification levels quite quickly. Often evolution trumps training.
And then there are the conflicts between humans and dogs. A buddy of mine once befriended a neighbor’s dog over the course of a year. When he bent down to pet it one day, it nearly bit his nose off. It took 30 stitches and a fine plastic surgeon to repair it. The dog had a blue tongue, an image my friend can’t shake 25 years later. That same guy was once engulfed by a pack of dogs in Ecuador on his bike, one got him in the calf, and 21 rabies shots to the belly followed. Intervening in a dog fight in Colorado, another bite sent him back to the hospital. Before you unleash your dog, just assume that it might be charging somebody with that type of traumatic background. Or a person who just got a new hip. Or a kid that your dog outweighs by 70 pounds. As dog owners, we can be impeding someone else’s right to enjoy their day on the trail. The same is true when we let dogs run loose in avalanche terrain or on the nordic track that the local cross-country club just lovingly groomed. Brown wax is a bummer. Leashed and unleashed dogs can trip up trail runners (a protected class of users). Unruly and dumb—that’s why we love them—dogs force mountain bikers to decide between canineicide or suicide. And their barking and scent scare off wildlife before others can view it. Unless, that is, you own a small dog and let it off the leash—then you just might see a mountain lion or a golden eagle real close.
I love dogs. Even little dogs. And I would hate to see one picked off like that, just as I would hate to see pups outlawed from our nation’s trails. Most dogs and their owners are wonderful. Dogs bring childlike joy and a weird connection to the natural world. Watching Roo run free at our one dog-friendly cross-country-skiing center—and playing with the chill cross-country mutts—is one of our favorite family outings. Dog owners, too, if you believe the boosterism they cotton to, tend to be more affectionate, nurturing, and outgoing people than non-dog owners. There might even be some truth to that. If so, then we should prove it by controlling our dogs around other users and picking up their waste. That doesn’t mean we have to leash them all the time, but we should think about the right time and the right place for them to answer the call of the wild.