Running with the Dogs

Last summer I was part of a near-fatal running trip from Bridger Bowl, across the spine of the ridge, and down to the "M." It should have been an average-Jane run with a group of friends and two dogs—a strapping Black Labrador we'll call Buck and his best pal, a Golden Retriever named Flash. The hike up was pleasant: morning light washed down the east face of the Bridgers while our leg muscles warmed from scrambling over rocks. The dogs were long gone in pursuit of adventure while we two-leggeds tested excuses about age, surgery, kids, old shoes, new shoes, and lack of sleep.

We reached the top in good form, although the heat of the July sun was already making us sweat. Camel backs and energy bars refueled us as we waited a few minutes for the pack to reconvene. Buck and Flash wound in and out among us. I noticed they seemed a bit persistent, and asked the woman who brought them if she had water for the dogs. "Nope," she said. "They're dogs. They'll be fine. They can drink from the creek."

Creek? On top of the Bridgers? Unbelievable. I gave each dog a swig from my water stash and we took off running.

Over the next five miles we settled into easy rhythms, pairing off with others who matched our pace. The dogs picked a spot behind the lead runner. Sunlight and blue sky permeated everything and bounding along the 9,000-foot elevation made us euphoric.

The fun waxed and waned as we climbed and dipped between peaks and saddles towards Baldy. The dogs mirrored our energy levels; they spent less and less time cavorting after rockchucks and blowing leaves. As the hours passed the runners spanned a mile or so, but we stopped and re-grouped often enough to be sure no one was in trouble.

At the stop on Mount Baldy the summer day was in full swing. We donned sunblock and hats. Buck and Flash were panting hard and their tongues hung long and dry. I drained my water into their mouths and another runner started them on an electrolyte drink from her pack. We decided the best thing was to keep going and get down before the day got any hotter.

Our lead runner looked like an elk taking off downhill. Her effortless limbs were loose and making the most of gravity's work. I'm a slowpoke on the talus; by the time I caught up to everyone else, the fast runners were well rested and thinking about the dogs. They were surprised that Buck and Flash weren't with me; I thought the dogs had taken off with the lead.

The realization sunk in that we'd have to backtrack. Three of the crew had kids to pick up and needed to get back to town. Gamely, the elk-woman who'd brought the dogs offered to run back up the mountain.

We waited. And waited. We asked other hikers and runners, reasonable folks who had started long after breakfast, if they'd seen our friend or the dogs. Nope. We worried. And we weren't a little nervous ourselves, out of food and liquids and feeling the mercury rise.

At last she appeared, a shiny black body and a shaking amber one in front of her. The dogs had opted to find a route down toward Sypes, toward the creek. It's amazing she found them, amazing her legs were still holding, although her eyes revealed the adrenaline and compassion driving her.

We coaxed the dogs to keep going. Finally we were in the trees but the shade only made it harder to prompt them to get up again. By now we were hours overdue back in town.

By the final steep downhill the Golden was starting to convulse. His body shook and his eyes were wild. The woman picked him up, her frame hidden behind his, and dropped her weight to stay steady down to the parking lot. She rushed to the creek and set the dog in.

Half an hour later both dogs were functional, although they needed a lift into the back of the van. We were a somber group during the long car ride back to Bridger to pick up the other vehicle. I wondered how the dogs would be the next day, and hoped they wouldn’t have to endure anything like that again. And I knew from that point on, I’d be extra careful with my own dog.

In the Long Run

It's so hard to tell with a dog. They don't complain and will, literally, kill themselves trying to keep up or please their masters. As the human, it's up to you to do the following:
1. Carry water for your dog. Make sure you have a vessel from which the dog will drink.
2. Don't take him out in hot conditions—especially where there will not be shade or water.
3. Give the mutt a rattlesnake vaccination if relevant.
4. Don't expect his pads to be tough enough for talus, long distances, or pavement early in the season.
5. Check his body thoroughly after outings for ticks, cuts, cactus spines, and ripped toenails.
6. Know your dog's gum color and check it after a run. A change toward white or red can indicate an infection, heat stroke, or internal distress from rancid bones.
7. Make outings fun for your dog. Letting your dog run off-leash lets him get the exercise he needs, satisfies his senses, and builds rapport between the two of you—provided you invest the time it will take to train your dog. Keep a leash with you at all times.
8. Be a responsible pet owner. Do not let your dog chase wildlife, livestock, other dogs, bicyclists, or people. Yelling "He doesn't usually bite!" isn't good enough.
9. Etiquette: scoop the poop. Always on the trail, and off-trail when in heavily traveled areas. Accumulating waste contaminates plants, streams, and ground water.
10. Know it will take a lot of time to teach your dog to be a good running and hiking partner, just as it took you or your kids time to learn. BE PATIENT. Don't take the dog if you can't stand the stops to smell the bushes.
11. On the other hand, socializing your dog on the trails is vital to a dog's mental health. Try to do it with a positive attitude rather than using forceful control right off the bat. Dogs vary widely in their degrees of sociability both with people and other dogs. Know your breed and know your particular companion's disposition.