DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
It’s difficult to venture into the San Juan National Forest without stumbling upon a recreationist and faithful canine trailing behind (or barreling ahead).
“We hike two or three times a week. I like to get him out and about,” Durango resident Jesse Kirvan said, referring to his golden retriever, Simon.
While a pet dog running free in the wild, released from the shackles of domestic life, is an appealing notion, the backcountry has its risks, including clashes with wild animals, livestock, people and pets. But a few precautions can minimize the danger, experts say.
The first safety measure, unfortunately, is keeping dogs on a leash unless they return immediately on command, said Wags Between Barks owner Traci Moriarty during a presentation at Backcountry Experience last week.
“This is where people don’t like me,” she said. “I swear upon (leashes) in the backcountry. Very few dogs have 100 percent recall.”
In the Weminuche Wilderness Area, off–leash dogs are required to be “in control,” meaning they stay within 10 feet of the owner, are responsive to commands and aren’t disturbing wildlife or livestock. Bureau of Land Management and other Forest Service lands do not have specified leash laws.
With their unpredictable movements, unleashed dogs can become safety hazards to bicyclists and horses sharing the trails, Moriarty said. And while wild animals tend to flee confrontation with humans, skunks, porcupines, black bears and the region’s top predator, mountain lions, can all be encountered in the wild.
Mountain lion attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but pets are an easier and more natural prey.
“You aren’t going to see a mountain lion until it’s too late. No dog is too big to take,” said Moriarty. “It’s just a fact of where we live.”
The canine instinct to hunt can also get them into trouble, whether by harassing wildlife or simply getting lost.
“Dogs have a strong sense of smell, and at their core they are hunters,” said Lewandowski. “If they catch a whiff of scent they like, they could be gone.”
Moriarty said observing the unwritten rules of trail etiquette are key to keeping backcountry tensions low.
For example, hikers and dogs should always make way for faster-moving or less-agile trail users by waiting safely off the main trail. With time and practice, dogs catch on.
“Repetition makes this a default behavior,” she said.
During the presentation, veterinarian Brian Marshall encouraged dog owners to stay up to date on vaccines and acquire basic first-aid knowledge.
Injured paws should be cleaned, then wrapped with padding or gauze and a waterproof tape. The bandage should be changed daily, kept tight enough to stay in place and loose enough to maintain blood circulation.
To relieve pain, avoid giving dogs acetaminophen, naproxen and ibuprofen, but aspirin is acceptable at a dosage of 5 milligrams per pound every 12 hours. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can be used to reduce inflammation from spider bites and bee stings. And as for venomous rattlesnake bites, Marshall recommends returning to civilization as quickly as possible.
“The only treatment correlated with increased survival in both dogs and humans is prompt medical attention,” he said.
Finally, even if you return home from camping exhausted and ready for a shower, taking a moment to inspect your dog’s skin for ticks could prevent blood loss or – in rare cases – infection.
It wouldn’t be called “the wild” if there was a guarantee of complete safety. But for most, the chance to exercise, discover new places and bond with a four-legged friend outweighs the risks.
And lest anyone become paranoid, Moriarty emphasized that most adventures happen without a hitch. Injuries and brushes with wildlife are exceptions to the norm. But sharp mental tools – awareness and common sense – are always wise to “pack,” along with your pocketknife and sunscreen.