Doggone It

Backcountry canine etiquette.

I love dogs, and I know they make great trail companions. They’re bundles of energy and always seem happiest running, bounding, walking, or climbing right beside us anywhere our adventures lead. But lately, dogs have become a point of contention for me. Here’s why: people. People are ruining dogs. We have managed to transfer our newfound lack of civility and basic politeness onto the animals we live with and recreate with. This is especially apparent when backcountry skiing in the mountains around Bozeman.

A case in point. Last winter, November’s deepish snowpack made for some great early-season touring. In a fruitless effort to get in "ski shape", I found myself at the ski area skinning for turns. As is customary, dozens of other enthusiasts were also there, many with their canine companions. Nine out of ten skier-dog teams were well behaved. But then there was that one team, the human side of which smiled a big smile and gave the most heartfelt “how’s it going?” as he caught up to me during a much-needed break. Out of the woods bounded a pup, awash in what could only have been post-poo pride.

dog, backcountry, Bozeman

“Don’t worry, he’s friendly,” Joe-smiles-a-lot beamed as his mutt sunk his teeth into my thigh. The dog bit me. Not hard, not even hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to leave a baseball-sized bruise on my leg the next day. Had I not been wearing three-layer Gore-Tex ski pants and long underwear, might have been a different story.

Now dogs will be dogs, and that’s fine. What bothered me was how clueless this skier was about his animal’s behavior. If we had been on the street, and his dog came up and bit me, or god forbid a child, the consequences for the dog might have been different. The outdoors should be no different.

I know we are all open-minded outdoor folks, who don’t want to judge, and want to let our animals be animals, but it’s time to get control of ourselves. Dogs are dogs. Treat them as such. Discipline them. Punish them when necessary. Make sure they behave, and understand what it means to have a well-behaved dog. If you don’t know, go to a clinic—Bozeman has thousands of them. Know basic etiquette for traveling with dogs in the backcountry. I’m not even talking about avalanche safety considerations, but more basic things like preventing them from running out of the woods and into downhill skiers. It’s dangerous for the skiers and the dogs. If you can’t control the animal in big mountain landscapes, confine their outdoor time to places like Peets Hill or Sourdough. Don’t let them do anything you wouldn’t do, such as pee in the skin track or run into other skiers. If you don’t know how to behave in the backcountry, there are courses for that as well.

Backcountry skiing, dogs, Bozeman

As Bozeman continues to grow, so too will its dog population. Negative interactions between recreationalists and canines will increase, and it won’t be the dogs’ fault.