How to Keep Your Dogs Safe in the Outdoors
Do I worry about my dogs? Absolutely. Do I let that stop us from bringing them on outdoor adventures? Absolutely not.
These are the risks my dogs are facing as I write this: wild animals, including grizzly bears, moose, and wolves, lake ice of dubious thickness, inattentive drivers who don’t expect to see dogs on this remote dirt road, traps, and hunters. But, this family cabin in northwest Montana is one of our favorite places to bring the dogs, who are running around it off-leash as we speak. Do I worry about them? Absolutely. Do I let it stop us from bringing them? Absolutely not. This is how we manage the risks they face up here and everywhere else.
Assess the Risks
Just like humans, dogs are far more likely to be injured or killed in boring, everyday life than they are on an adventure. It’s usually household poisons or car accidents that cause accidental dog deaths. (Note: there isn’t much categorical assessment of accidental death causation for canines; data here appears to be largely anecdotal or based on disparate information sources.) So worry about keeping peanut butter with xylitol and rodent poison out of your house long before you go watch YouTube videos about hand-to-moose combat.
But car accidents certainly do affect adventure dogs, whether you’re driving them someplace fun, or just loading them into and out of the car. I factor in the location of trailheads and proximity of roads, and modify plans accordingly. Day-to-day, I choose a trailhead that’s about a mile from the nearest paved road. That way, if one of the dogs decides they want to play chase instead of get back in the car, it happens in safe environment. If we’re using a trail that is right off a paved road, I keep the dogs on-leash within about a half mile of pavement. Overkill? Most of the time, but it also totally removes one of the most common and pressing dangers from our dogs’ lives.
Drill down like that both in your daily life, and before going on any adventure. What risks will your dog face, and how can you reduce, eliminate, or handle them? How likely are they? Do you have the equipment or skills to reduce those risks or handle their consequences?
The Low Hanging Fruit
There’s some easy stuff all us dog owners can take care of that will substantially reduce risks to our dogs.
The first is vaccinations. Staying up to date on rabies and all other common dog vaccines is important for your dogs’ health and can massively improve the outcomes of bad situations. In addition to the usual stuff, I also keep my dogs vaccinated for leptospirosis, a bacteria that’s common in water sources polluted by cows, and rattlesnake bites. The latter is controversial, of limited utility (it doesn’t immunize your dogs from venom, but it may extend the time you have to get them to the vet), and is known to cause problematic side effects in some dogs. I’ve determined that the rattlesnake vaccine’s benefits outweighs its drawbacks in my dogs, but your calculus may differ.
Other common sense stuff includes keeping your dogs microchipped (and the information in the database up-to-date), making sure their tags are current and legible, and using good quality leashes and harnesses. A friend just called to complain that he’d had to chase his brother’s dog around for an hour after it slipped out of its collar. That was just frustrating this time, but had he been around vehicle traffic, it could have been deadly.
Just like humans, dogs benefit from high quality, unprocessed food, fed in the correct amount to keep them lean and healthy. And, also just like us, dogs need regular exercise. Letting your dog to grow sedentary, then asking too much of them on a rare outdoors trip is a proven recipe for injury. As is allowing a dog to get overweight or feeding them food without any actual nutritional value. None of my three dogs have been to the vet for anything but routine booster shots since we switched them to a raw diet.
Prepare for the Worst
I’m pretty sure the grizzlies are asleep for the winter. I’m pretty sure that the ice on the lake is thick enough to support dogs and humans. But every morning we’re here, I get fully dressed, put the dogs on their leashes, and walk the area with them looking for fresh tracks. I stay ready to go, with my bear gun on my belt and a can of bear spray by the door, while they’re outside. I can observe the entire lakeshore from the chair in which I’m writing. If one of the mutts steps foot on the ice, I go outside and yell at them. They’re slowly getting the idea that they don’t belong out there.
It’s extremely unlikely that any of the dogs will run into a problem while we’re up here. But, by supervising their exposure to the risks we’ve identified, and being prepared to render them safe if a bad thing does happen, I’m taking practical action to minimize the dangers they face, even in this relatively dangerous environment.
You can do the same at home. We keep a pack of Benadryl capsules in the glove boxes of all our cars, and in all my backpacks. That can keep their airways open in the event of an allergic reaction. We built a six foot fence around our entire yard, to utterly eliminate the potential for them to jump out. If I tie them up outside a cafe, I make sure it’s to an immovable object like a lamp post, somewhere I can see them from the inside. We test the limits of these things very rarely, but again, all this minimizes likely risk.
There are a few things you can buy or upgrade that can help enforce your dog’s safety.
The first is a good harness. Over a collar, these transfer forces off your dog’s neck and throat, while wrapping them securely around their chest and legs. All three of our dogs wear Ruffwear Front Range harnesses, which are all-day comfortable, extremely robust, and include a chest loop that helps train them not to pull. Pair that with a strong leash with secure attachment hardware, and your dog should never be able to slip free.
Worried about furbearer trapping in the area around the cabin, plus those bears and moose, I picked up a Garmin dog tracking system for this trip. I figured it was overkill, but in just the last week of use it’s delivered so much peace of mind. Unlike simpler, cellular-data-based trackers, Garmin offers tracking collars and devices that genuinely work anywhere in the world. Sure, they’re bulky, and sure they’re expensive, but if you want to track your dogs way out in the middle of nowhere, Garmin’s systems are the only viable option.
We’re using the Astro 430 tracker paired with T5 collars. The tracker comes bundled with one collar for $550, and you can buy additional collars for $250 each. The tracking device itself can manage up to 20 dogs. The collars pick up their location using GPS/GLONASS receivers, then transmit that to the tracking device every 2.5 seconds using a radio signal. The radio signal gives you a nine-mile useable range between tracking device and dog. Since our dogs aren’t trained to respond to shock collars, we opted to forego that feature, and save ourselves some battery life and money.
The Astro 430-T5 collar system is designed for hunters, and includes a bunch of specific features for that sport that we aren’t taking advantage of. (I hunt, but not with my dogs.) What we do gain is the ability to precisely locate the position of our dogs on a pre-loaded nationwide topo map any time they’re out of sight. On a hike just a couple of days ago, we lost track of our youngest dog, Teddy. I thought she’d followed the other dogs into the woods just ahead of us, but when she didn’t return with them, I was able to see that she was over 900 yards away, on the trail we’d just come from. Finding herself out of audible range, she was just sitting there in the middle of the trail, waiting for us to come find her. Without the tracker, that situation could have cost a lot of time and worry. But with the Garmin, we were able to walk right back to where she was and then carry on with our hike. This system is going to deliver similar assurance in the mountains around our house and on an upcoming honeymoon road trip to southern Baja and back.
We’ve also started to put the dogs in blaze orange Hurrta Rambler vests anytime we’re outside in cool, wet, or cold weather. We initially picked these up to keep the dogs safe during hunting season, but the visibility they provide has proved useful pretty much everywhere. If one of the dogs were to encounter a car on that remote dirt road by the cabin, these vests will give that driver as much warning as possible. And they make it way easier to keep an eye on the dogs as we’re hiking through the woods, too. They’re made from a thin layer of neoprene, so they’re strong, flexible, and don’t absorb water.
The Ethics of Dog Safety
We obviously love our dogs, but there are situations in which their safety and wellbeing can’t or shouldn’t be the top priority.
We’re talking about grizzly bears here, so just to address that one right away: no endangered species should ever have to die just because a dog has a bad idea. We carry guns in bear territory for human, not dog safety.
Similarly, a dog’s safety should not compromise that of humans. For that reason, it’s unethical to equip a dog with an avalanche beacon if they join you for a backcountry ski trip or similar. If the worst was to happen, a rescuer might waste valuable time digging out a dog, rather than a human. You should include the risks posed to other humans by any rescue your dogs might need, while assessing the risks of any outdoor adventure you want to bring them on.
As for risking your own life to save that of your dogs? The answer will vary by owner and situation. I’d encourage you to include such scenarios in your assessment of risks and discuss relevant action plans with your partner. But yeah, I’m going in that lake if one of my dogs falls through the ice.
Know Your Dog
Everything mentioned here is secondary to simply developing a relationship and range of experiences with your dogs. Learning how their individual personalities react to various circumstances, what their motivations are, and figuring out how you can use all that to predict your dog’s behavior and modify it is key to gaining confidence in them outdoors.
Worried about risks your dog might face on an off-leash hike? Find someplace relatively safe, give your dog a little exercise before letting them off, then closely observe them, and put them back on-leash if you get worried. Start there, scale to longer hikes in new places over time, and you’ll eventually develop confidence in your dog across a broad range of circumstances. The same process applies to other activities and other risks.
What would happen if my dogs do encounter a big, dangerous animal? Well, Bowie will run around it at warp speed, staying just out of the range of its hooves, horns, or claws. Wiley will hold his ground and roar like a lion. Teddy will square up to whatever it is and bark ferociously right in its face. How do I know that? Because it won’t be the first time it’s happened. Sound terrifying? It is, which is a big part of the reason we have three big dogs. Everything that’s encountered them so far has turned tail and run away. Part of my overall risk management calculation is how much safer the dogs make our own lives.