Canines can bring companionship — or conflict — to wildland trails
By Gillian Scott
Dogs are our companions, our friends, our family members. So for many of us, it’s only natural that our dogs join us on outdoor adventures. The effort to bring them along is rewarded with happy dog “grins,” a furry body curled next to our sleeping bags in the wilderness, and sometimes a soft head laid in our laps.
But even dog lovers may find themselves frustrated, annoyed, or even enraged by dogs they encounter on the trail.
There’s the dog that sneaks up behind you on a mountain summit and steals your sandwich.
The dog that rushes up to greet you and getsmud all over your pants.
The dog that lunges at your child, growling, as you pass on a narrow trail.
The dog that chases wildlife or, worse, kills it. And, sometimes, the dog that bites.
Wilton resident Bobbie Tompkins was hiking in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness in early June when an off-leash German shepherd attacked her dog, Claira, without warning. Claira was left with two puncture wounds and a deep gash in the back of her neck that required internal and external stitches and two drains. The vet bill came to close to $800.
“A simple restraint could have prevented this injury,” Tompkins said. “This man’s ignorance in thinking he should let his dog roam free cost Claira a lot of pain.”
Tompkins said in the heat of the moment, worried about rushing Claira to a vet, she didn’t ask for the dog owner’s name. She was trying to track him down via license plate numbers and the trail register, but was doubtful about her odds of success.
In the meantime, Claira is healing, but her days of hiking may be over. Tompkins said she’s reluctant to take the risk of bringing her into the wilderness again.
“What would have been a beautiful day through some beautiful forest ended up being possibly her last hike on public trails,” Tompkins said.
Rules and Recommendations
According to David Winchell, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman, DEC regulations for the High Peaks Wilderness require people to maintain control over their pets at all times and to never leave pets unattended.
In addition, in the Eastern High Peaks, all dogs—except hunting dogs that are actively hunting—must be on a leash while on trails, at primitive tent sites, at lean-to sites, at elevations above 4,000 feet and at other areas where the public gathers, such as parking lots. Though not required on the state forest preserve outside of the Eastern High Peaks, leashes are a good idea elsewhere as well, Winchell said.
“DEC recommends that unless you can control your dog through audio commands so that it will not chase wildlife or run up to other hikers, it should be kept on leash on all hikes,” he said. “Having a dog on a leash protects wildlife, avoids negative encounters with other hikers and their dogs, and ensures their safety.”
Winchell noted that even if a dog doesn’t catch wild animals, the animals being chased will still use precious energy in fleeing, making them vulnerable to natural predators. And a dog that meets up with certain wildlife— such as a skunk, porcupine, bear or moose— can suffer injury or other consequences.
Having a dog leashed can also prevent unpleasant human encounters.
“Not everyone is a dog lover and some, especially children, have a fear of dogs loping down a trail towards them,” Winchell said. “This can ruin an otherwise pleasant outdoor experience for them. Even people who like dogs do not want a dog to run up and jump on them with their muddy feet.”
DEC forest rangers issue an average of 10 tickets annually for people hiking with their dogs off-leash in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, he said.
Besides DEC regulations that cover stateland, some private property owners may have rules banning dogs or requiring leashes. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve in Keene Valley, for instance, does not allow dogs on any of its trails, some of which provide access to popular High Peak summits. Regulations can also vary from municipality to municipality. So county-owned land close to your home may allow unleashed dogs, but land in the next county may require leashes. It’s always a good idea to do some research before heading out, Winchell said.
Dog trainer Deb Pica, a Saranac Lake resident,said hiking safely with a dog is a combination of having control of the dog through voice or leash and understanding a dog’s body language and behavior.
A member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers with decades of training experience, Pica has taught classes specifically on hiking with dogs through the Adirondack High Peaks Dog Training Club. She said she created the class to target dog owners who were not only interested in hiking with their dogs, but who would commit to spending the time— “doing the homework”—to make the training stick.
“Unless people are really motivated, they don’t get proficient,” Pica said. “You don’t get a really reliable recall.”
And a reliable recall, which means the dog returns to its owner when called, every time it’s called, is essential if you want to hike with your dog off-leash, said Pica. That way, you can stop the dog from chasing wildlife, approaching another dog or getting too close to someone who appears nervous.
A new book, “Doghiker,” offers recommendations for people who want to bring their pets into New York’s wild forests. Besides describing more than 30 hikes in the Adirondacks, author Alan Via lists outings in the Capital Region and the Catskills. There’s also an introduction offering advice on topics such as choosing a dog, training, first aid and gear.
“Even if you firmly believe dogs belong at home, you’ll discover my aim is to encourage good behavior rather than wishing away problems,” Via writes. “Getting dog owners to think about positive trail behavior benefits everyone.”
“Doghiker: Great Hikes with Dogs from the Adirondacks through the Catskills”
By Alan Via
State University of New York Press, Excelsior Editions, 2020. $24.95
“You need to say, OK, I can get my dog to come in my backyard all the time,” she said. “Now we have to challenge the dog with distractions and things like that, and that’s where people tend to fall apart. They don’t work that part of it. And the more that dog practices not coming back, you lose your recall.”
People don’t have to train their dogs to competition level, Pica said. But a dog should respond when called, and should be able to walk quietly by a group of people when passing on a trail, whether on leash or off.
“If there are any aggression issues, you really need to address that before you take the dog out into the world,” she said. “And you need to recognize what’s problematic behavior, which many people don’t. They have no idea. They’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s fine,’ when they actually don’t know if the dog is fine.”
Even a dog that doesn’t have aggression issues can be frightening to other hikers.
“People shouldn’t be allowing their dogs to run up to people, even if they’re friendly. It’s just not a good idea,” Pica said.
‘All about the dog’
For many dog owners, having a canine companion along is part of the enjoyment of being outdoors. Watching a dog romp joyfully down a trail or through a creek just adds to the fun of a hike.
Heidi Roland, a resident of Lake Placid and an Adirondack 46er, said she routinely hikes with her dog off-leash, though only where it’s allowed. The dog, Daisy, is a mutt weighing in just under 40 pounds.
“Hiking with a dog on a leash is a real drag for you and a real drag for the dog,” she said. “Our dogs have always been considerably more protective if they’re on a leash. So, an encounter with another dog, when they’re both on leash and with the closeness of the trail, is bound to be not a very good story.”
But Roland said she and her husband typically hike in areas where they’re not going to run into very many people—the crowded High Peaks no longer appeal to them—and they always carry a leash with them.
“We like to go where the dog doesn’t have to be on a leash,” she said. “Sometimes the hikes are all about taking the dog. They’re as much for her.”
Of the four dogs Roland’s family has had, she said none has ever gotten quilled by a porcupine, or skunked. One did get into a bee’s nest, and a few have liked to chase chipmunks and squirrels.
Roland said she has had other hikers tell her that her dog should be on a leash, but it’s always happened in areas where leashes aren’t actually required.
“They won’t even have a dog and it doesn’t appear they’re afraid of the dog … in the meantime, she’s not even anywhere near them because she’s off in the woods. So I don’t really know what that’s about,” she said. “But it is a little confusing, because there are different rules for different areas. And that’s not entirely obvious.”
“When we got her as a puppy, we did hire a dog trainer just because Brittanys are notoriously high-energy,” Douglas said. “Doing what we do, I feel like it’s important to have a well-trained dog because we are out outside quite a bit with the dog.”
That training paid off, she said. Daisy is great off-leash, and is so good-natured she would never hurt a person or another dog. Douglas said she sees both sides of the story. On the one hand, leashes can be inconvenient.
“There are some places where it’s just really difficult for a dog to be on a leash, like if you’re on a steep rock face. In some instances, it can be dangerous,” she said. “If it were up to me, I’d prefer that some dogs were allowed to be off-leash.”
On the other hand, she always follows rules regarding leash use and understands why the rules are needed. Not all dogs she has encountered in the woods have been well-behaved.
“I’ve seen dogs that act strange around little kids or aren’t very good with other dogs, Douglas said. “If people are too lax with their dogs, or the dogs are not well-trained or they’re not good with kids, it’s scary.