A person’s best friend. You know where we are going: dogs in the backcountry. Many words come to mind, like liability, poop, sit, stay, treat, dog-person, and cat-person. But damn, they are lovable. Do they belong out there with us?
Sadie loved skiing more than anyone I have ever met. Maybe I should say she loved going skiing – as she was a dog, she was not on skis herself, but rather leaped paw over paw through any pow she could find. She was a sled dog mut from Fairbanks who found her way to our family in Leadville, Colorado. If I grabbed skins, ski boots, or any piece of the backcountry kit, she would eagerly run to the door, refusing to be left at home. She didn’t mind early mornings and relished the days I brought along smoked salmon. We lost Sadie to cancer, but not before she ticked off several 14er descents, countless pow days, returned to her home state of AK, and clocked in more big vert days than the most enthusiastic of die-hards, as she regularly skied any given run three times to my one. I miss her on every skin track.
Sadie was my friend, so I brought her along skiing – it was that simple. However, in the years since, I have changed my mind considerably on skiing with dogs.
Our pack numbers rebounded when Charger entered our household four years ago. He came with the name, but it is well-deserved. An Iditarod team drop out (with cousins who have won the race), he and my wife skijour at what I consider to be mind-numbing speeds on nordic gear. One afternoon in the winter he first joined the fam, he came out on a ski tour on our local milk run outside of Anchorage. Leaping in front of Margi (my wife) as she came towards the bottom of the run, they nearly collided. Limping over to us just after the near pile up, we realized his leg had been cut open by her ski edge. I wrapped the injury in my buff, picked him up and skied back to the car. While he was getting stitched up by the vet, we were told he was the third dog that day brought in with the same injury–cut by a ski.
Rules of Engagement
Skiing with dogs is so tempting. But truthfully it is also dangerous, it often seems to ignore the dog’s interests, and frankly it can be tough to tell the difference between stress and fun when dogs are out and about in a new environment. Avalanche terrain and metal edges present the most obvious risks, but wildlife, cold, and other people can all present real risks to our furry friends. My other dog, Ziggy (a 15 year old lab), once got a face full of porcupine quills at 13,000ft, heading up Mt. Giesler on Independence Pass….no clue what the porcupine was doing up there, but the dog found it. Dogs also create considerable risks for us humans and can impose those risks on others around us (I have seen dogs running around start zones above other skiers – not a good look).
Ziggy is long retired, but Charger still jumps at the opportunity to come along when things line up. I love skiing with my dog, but he is only allowed to tag along under special conditions:
— It’s a pow day where he is much slower than anyone in the group on the downs.
— We are not in avalanche terrain.
— It’s not a crowded zone.
— We are not out for a big day.
— My ski partners have approved.
He still laps plenty of miles on the local nordic trails as a staunch winter enthusiast, but I have personally moved away from including dogs on the regular backcountry roster.
Here are a few thoughts from others:
Malcolm H., dog person: “Dogs aren’t great ski partners…I’ve heard of dogs dying, dogs triggering avalanches above people, and dogs getting pushed off things by slough…dogs dropped a cornice onto some friends. Basically they are shitty in avalanche terrain. Even in non-avy terrain, I think a lot of people are oblivious that their dog is out of its element…”
Nick M., Californian, alleged cat person: “If a dog poses no objective hazard to others, then dog owners should be able to have fun with their pets. That means dogs probably should not go into avalanche terrain or be allowed to chase other groups, but I don’t have a dog and have not spent much time skiing with a dog; maybe I would feel differently if I did.”
Margi D., skijorer: “You have to be prepared to treat any injury in the backcountry. If you bring a dog, that means you have to be ready to treat or evacuate them just as you would other members of your party.”
Joe M., former dog handler: “Dogs are “variables” by nature. Navigating the backcountry, especially avalanche terrain is about minimizing variables to the best of one’s abilities. Introducing more variables just doesn’t make sense. That said, super low angle butt wiggle zones are just fine.”
Adam J., amateur dog photographer: “I love skiing with my dog. He always seems stoked to be out there too. But there are days that it’s safer to leave him at home. It really depends on the dog’s abilities, if there are crevasses, deep willowy snow, and how big of a day you’re planning. A dog has to work a lot harder post-holing in a bottomless skin track and porpoising down several thousand foot powder runs than you do gliding on skis. But when things line up, skiing with dogs is great. Plus, peak photos are always better with a pup on top!”
Tom F., chihuahua owner: “Only in specific circumstances – short day, mellow terrain, green light. Too much risk to you, others, and the dog otherwise.”
Anything else you would add?
Update in light of recent comment: After careful consideration, Dr. Lee now goes as Professor Lee, pretentious Ph.D. though if you’re friends you can still call him Alex, unless he’s wearing tweed or leather boots…Although not an MD, his parents are still proud.
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.
I have an easy rule: if I pack crampons for a tour I don’t bring the dog….
Dogs get cold too. Years ago a freind brought a dog on a tour on a single-digit-F day, and after several hours the dog wouldn’t move, it would just curl in a ball in the skin track and shiver. While skinning we had to take turns picking her up and hugging her to keep her warm. Truth be told she warmed me up too when it was my turn to hold and hug her, but it was slow skinning while doing so. I’m not a pet person, but I sure felt sorry for that dog. It was cruel to inflict that cold and pain on her.
I don’t want to ski over your dog so when we drop in you and your dog go last
If you do tour with a dog, consider how you would evacuate any serious distance with an injured K9. Know how to improvise a carrier, or get a commercially available one, such as this (no affiliation): https://fidoprotection.com/
For that matter, double check that you know how to evacuate an injured humanoid (rescue tarp?) too.
On Lizard Pass skiing trees, my only option was to ski into a tree well to avoid a high speed collision with a dog. Was a deadly miserable experience, trapped upside down fighting for my life in deep powder and no one knew I was there. Thanks stupid dog owner.
Some years before skiing down from Longs Peak on a tight trail, a dog running uphill forced me into a crash against a boulder breaking my knee cap. Yep, dogs are illegal in National Parks. Thanks stupid dog owner.
I love dogs, but I have experienced many negative dog skiing experiences as have my friends. And it is typically the oblivious self centered dog owner that is the actual problem.
Like Kristian, I’ve skied a lot in the Front Range of CO, where lots of people head for the hills with their dogs. I spent too many years trying to avoid dogs while skiing down. If I moved left, so did the dog. Ditto for moving right. Too many crashes. At last I figured out what to do: aim for the dog. They understand and move aside. So, I have reached an understanding with dogs on the trail, but alas not with their owners.
In the unlikely event that the dog is not smart enough to get out of the way, it’s better to hit a soft dog than a hard rock or to hurl yourself headlong into a fearsome tree well.
Dogs are a liability in the backcountry not an asset. They poop/piss all over and most folks do not pick it up (or worse put it in a bag and then leave it). They ruin the skin track (cardinal rule: no booting/pawing in the skin track) and disturb fresh powder that could be reserved for skiing. They bark and erase the general solitude and even worse result in much yelling by their human owner since they are usually poorly disciplined and untrained. They do not respect avalanche protocols and are unpredictable in their movements and paths resulting in injuries and unnecessary risks. Are there any positives to bringing a dog skiing besides the owner’s entitled need to “exercise” their dog instead of actually taking them for a walk (which last time I checked is what dogs do)? Bottom line is: DOGS DON’T SKI.
I totally get and agree with your annoyances (well, except the dogs disturbing fresh powder). However, all those issues are a sign of a bad dog owner. I have 2 huskies, and they display none of the behavior that so annoys you. Mostly because I don’t let them. They’re basically never off leash. Which also means I don’t do any skiing with them besides skinning around very flat areas. There are good dogs and dog owners out there.
As far as any positives, yes, my dogs get more excited to go out in the snow than any human I’ve ever seen. And it’s a little presumptuous for you to judge how others enjoy the outdoors. If going out with your dog is fun for you and him, and he doesn’t impact others, isn’t that what it’s all about?
[These comments are hilarious, what a bunch of primadonnas, ahem!..sounds like a Wednesday.] I meant to say “DOGS IN THE BACKCOUNTRY SHOULD BE OUTLAWED!!!!”
Dogs and their owners impact everyone they come in contact with, usually in a negative way. If your going to see other people, leave the dogs at home.
I ski with my chocolate lab, Freyja. She is a service dog. Her discipline is excellent and she obeys all commands, especially heel, immediately. This is crucial for me skiing. She stays close because she keeps her job first at hand, but she loves skiing and being outside. We also stay in low risk terrain 90% of the time. We have skied in other groups with a dog and I do find it scary and cringy to see where the dog is going. I think I’m lucky with her level of discipline and my personal rule is “this level or no skiing”.
Things I have learned from enjoying winter with Thor: A standard day of ski touring is not a great time to have a dog with you. (dogs get cold, not great in avy terrain, one more being to manage risk for…) A 1/2 day or shorter in low angle terrain close to the car can be a great time with your little buddy. for example skinning on local forest roads. Bring enough calories and water to keep you pooch going strong. A repurposed climbing chalk bag is a good way to carry used poop bags. Coban wrap with a little gauze is what you want in your first aid kit to treat a ski edge cut on your dog. Train them to be comfortable being carried, I carry my dog with his body on top of my shoulders and behind my neck with his front legs together in one hand and his back legs together in another. Use sport mode to capture epic photos of you dingo charging through powder.
Sadly, the old adage “There are no bad dogs, just bad owners (trainers)” is often the case. Thus, when dogs don’t know their place, purpose or BC protocols, it’s clear the owners haven’t logged the time to properly train nor socialize their animals how to be assets and valuable partners in a group. My previous dog was Siberian/PitBull (Pitsky) mix — the finest of many dogs I’ve owned — but it was 2 years of mostly solo missions for us, learning to work as a team. The payoff was getting invited on tours asking if I would bring Bette. My friends could always count on her staying off their ski tails, never soiling the skin track, and following only my tracks on the down. Priceless. I’m currently working with a 4 mo old Siberian whose digging skills are better than my skiing skills — exactly what I ask of all my touring partners — and it looks to be a long but deeply rewarding season.
My dogs, Belgian Tervurens, are bred for winter, endurance, herding, and obefiance. 4 to 5 hour tours in cold conditions are optimal. I ski solo with dogs in less frequented areas, based in Jackson. Almost always in avalnche terrain. 25 years of great ski partners.
It’s only the 90% of dog owners who make the rest look bad!
I am guessing that Alex Lee is some sort Medical Doctor (only pretentious Ph.Ds use Dr.) . Missing from the article is that winter is an incredibly difficult time for wildlife and that wildlife is living mostly off of the fat reserves stored from the previous summer. Predators, particularly canines are widely distributed because of many limitations. But now instead of infrequently, wildlife must deal with multiple chases on a daily basis by healthy well fed domestic animals. This constant chasing and stressing literally kills them as they do not have the energy reserves to survive bitter cold winter conditions until food is plentiful again the following summer. We’ve all seen dog owners laughing and praising their dogs for “harmlessly” chasing wildlife.
Having managed, year round, a large piece of private property that is used by the general public, my experience with dogs in the backcountry is overall negative. I have seen dogs chase and kill wildlife, bite and injure people, eat others food, damage tents and shelters, fight other dogs, defecate and urinate all over the place, bark non stop, etc. The presence of dogs is very disruptive to native wildlife and just the predator scent alone puts stress on wildlife, especially in winter. We also frequently receive complaints from members of the public about peoples dogs, even though dogs are not allowed on the property and it’s well signed. I constantly remind myself that someone’s dog does not have more rights or privileges than another member of the public. A true service dog is a different animal, pun intended. There is no such thing as an “emotional support” service animal under ADA. Here is a good linkhttps://www.ada.gov/topics/service-animals/ . Our experience with a service dog that is used in support of someone with a disability has been very positive. over the last forty years there have been a handful of users with service animals. They contact us in advance for approval, have extremely well trained animals, and are very considerate of others. Generally the animal never leaves their side and they don’t like other people interacting with their animal- it’s essential for their needs. The problem is that many dog owners want to just take their dog(s) with them to do what they want to do, with no consideration for the people or wildlife around them. If people truly want to recreate with their dog, there are plenty of opportunities on public lands where there are not other people and they can exercise their dog accordingly.
ADA dogs typically get close to $10k or more of training. It’s simply a different level that is shocking to people. My service dog also uses an e-collar, which uses vibration and the dog and owner are trained to work in sync and the dog responds to commands at a very different level. She can be up to a half mile away and I can command her to come directly. So, I think this post well sums up the difference between ADA service dog and others.
I am one of the dog positive to dog wary in the backcountry. When Parks Canada kicked dogs off overnight backcountry uses in Banff, I was livid. My dog had been a years long companion. But she was exceptionally disciplined and responsive to commands. Ripping pow with her was a joy. However, over the years watching dogs come up lame from ski edges, dying in avalanches or other misadventures, and injuries to people from dog collisions has me holding back now.
Like many others, my current dog was (he’s 15+ now, and losing his balance) restricted by terrain choices, snow conditions, and interactions with any other people/species. As a loyal companion I want to respect his abilities and desires. He loves snow, and running in it… wallowing, not so much.
Where are the dog owners in this comment thread who think their dogs are moral agents and deserving of the rights and privileges of humans? These people are sporting about in the snowy wilds with their animals but are lying low here.
I argued once with a dog owner whose dog had attacked me while I was skiing. He asserted in so many words that his dog was a moral agent and was responsible for the attack, but he was innocent, and, by the way, I should appreciate that she had a miserable life as a puppy.