Photo: Cody Downard
Photo: Cody Downard

Leave Your Dog at Home

An argument against dogs in the backcountry

PHOTO: Cody Downard

Let's make some generalizations: Dog owners—which, it is important to note, I am not—love their dogs. They like having them around. They do not mind carrying around fecal matter in very thin plastic bags. (I'm not going to get into leaving shit on the skin track or thereabouts. You're better than that.)

But assuming that everyone else likes your dog as much as you like your dog is kind of like assuming everyone appreciates your Facebook screed about The Donald. Really cool if you're into it, really not if you're not. There's a spectrum of dog appreciation that ranges from puppy love, to please-don't-jump-on-me, to paranoia. To be a considerate dog owner, I think you should play to the lowest comfort level of others. If that sounds like overkill, you've never come around a corner to a bear-sized Lab bearing its teeth at you. You rarely see a dog in the backcountry on a leash, and if you're scared of dogs—a strange animal running loose—even if the owner is screaming that Frank is friendly, is a little less than awesome.

That's why I think you, dog owner, should leave your pet at home. There are plenty of places that dogs belong—Corgi-focused Instagram feeds, for instance—but the backcountry isn't one of them. I would much rather watch puppies take naps on the internet.

But we never go anywhere near anyone else, you say. My dog loves the snow, you say. Or, people who don't like dogs have no soul, so eff 'em. If that's your angle, let's think about it from the dog's perspective. One of the saddest days of ski touring I've ever had was when my friend Matt inadvertently sliced his dog's ACL with his ski edge. He had to carry her out bleeding, whimpering, and in pain.

As careful as you are, you're still traveling on four metal edges. Pups get excited and snow conditions can change quickly. Say, for instance, you hit an icy patch of sun crust and slash a quick turn. It's shockingly easy to slice a dog that's been chasing you.

Don Triplat, the executive director of the Sierra Avalanche Center, found that out the hard way when his dog, Scarlet, suffered a cut down to the bone. "I spoke with local vets and learned that they prepare the surgical room every powder day because of how many dogs get cut by their partners," he shared in a Facebook post after it happened. Now, he says he's much more careful about taking his dogs out. "I only ski with them on certain occasions now, and not in groups," he says. "I separate them from any other skiers and keep them with me to manage their exposure. And the dog that was injured can't run like that any more and is limited to groomed cross-country trails. She walks with a limp all the time."

Good ski conditions aren't ideal if you have four legs. The double-overhead backcountry pow we're all looking for is hard for dogs. If conditions aren't deep it can be even worse. A study from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal found that ligament and tendon injuries were common in dogs that were active in the winter, and that they were also at risk for injuries to their paws. Plus, for reasons I don't quite understand, people often lose track of their dogs when they're skiing. More than once, I have skied out to the trailhead with a strange pup looking for its owner, who likely skied off and didn't realize their dog wasn't right behind them.

And then there's the objective hazard of slides. To stay safe in avalanche terrain, you're constantly trying to manage as many variables as you can. A dog is a variable. It changes the group dynamics and it's a factor you can't always control. Especially given the tricky heuristic trap of thinking you're its master. You can't explain wind-loading or terrain traps to a dog. You can't show them that subtle shifts in the topography create loaded rollovers, or tell them why they shouldn't run under an avy path. You can train them to be incredibly attentive, and try to keep them close, but that hardly works with humans, much less animals with whom you can't have a thoughtful conversation about risk. And if you do bring them into avalanche terrain you have to seriously consider what would happen if the slope slid. I never want a dog to die in a slide, but I really never want to dig out a canine instead of a human. Some people get alternate-frequency beacons for their dogs, but that seems like putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding gash.

In 2015, the Bridger-Teton National Forest put the residents of Jackson Hole in doggie timeout. They temporarily banned dogs from a popular cross-country trail after a skier was hurt colliding with a dog, wildlife was chased off, and after finding 168 (count 'em) trailside piles of poo. A similar ban was proposed for Teton Pass, where dogs are now required to be on a leash in the parking lot and trailhead. It was a message to the local dog-owning population to literally get their shit under control. And perhaps they're on to something: Maybe it's not the dogs that are the problem (I'm sure they like fecal matter everywhere), maybe it's the owners.

Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based writer. She really wants to watch your dog while you go skiing.