Dogs and leash laws on Colorado's 14ers
August 19, 2008 —
Once or twice each summer I add myself to the list of more than 500,000 people who visit Colorado’s 14ers (or fourteeners) annually, and every time I go, I bring my dog.
Not all dogs make welcome companions on a 14er summit attempt. Meghan Smedes of the non-profit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (who also provided me with the 500,000 number), rightly pointed out that dogs loosed into the high country wilderness can be a danger to themselves, other animals, and humans. Most trails to the summit require that dogs be on leashes, but even for those that don’t, Smedes recommends they stay on a leash.
On trails to fourteeners and elsewhere, this rule is almost universally ignored. Dog owners must think it’s too strange, too constraining, for dogs to come along on a hike only to be imprisoned by a 6-foot lead the entire way to the summit. Abstinence may be one answer, but anyone who’s looked into the eyes of a loyal pet can hardly dash its animalistic hopes of an outdoor romp, especially when most dogs don’t get the exercise they need in the first place.
Dogs have become a legitimate issue on 14er routes, however. Smedes let me know that one of her peak stewards (who encourage good etiquette on peaks) was bitten on the hand earlier this year by a loose dog. She also told me a foreboding tale about a loose dog being gored – and killed – by a mountain goat “a few years ago,” (further details were not forthcoming on this particular story, but everyone at the Fourteeners Initiative office swore to its veracity).
I will admit that even my dog Bode, a well-behaved chocolate lab, will sometimes be a nuisance on a hike. Although he means well, not every human being on the trail is interested in patting his head while he wags his entire body in a kind of greeting dance, performed on people whether or not they have an aversion to large, sopping wet canines.
As for the wildlife, my dog is whistle trained to sit and stay on command, even when a little pika pokes her head above the rocks to deliver a taunting ‘chirp.’ This ability was proven on a recent jaunt to the summit of Homestake Peak when ochotona princeps popped atop a boulder near Bode and chirped, warning her/his companions of our invasion to her 12,200-foot-high turf. Just as he has with pheasant, grouse, deer, elk, or any other type of wildlife, Bode gave chase, but stopped dead and sat with one blast of my whistle.
Not that he would have caught the little pika, but the incident gave me pause. The immensely cuddly creature has about two months of good growing to gather enough of the surrounding grasses and vegetation to last it the entire winter, collecting what it can in a small haystack among the rocks. Any expenditure of energy, however small, can be costly, and bolting away from my dog seemed an unnecessary burn of precious calories.
Beyond that, it’s super-rare to see a dog which actually listens to its owner while on the chase. My dog is perfect (of course), but most of the dogs we meet on the trail are oblivious to their owners’ shouts and calls, and most of the time dogs and owners end up looking the fool.
As with most dog-related problems, this one is caused by humans – and can be solved by humans, too. As I alluded to above, in the late ’90s the Forest Service and the Fourteeners Initiative gathered information which indicated that about half a million people visit 14ers each year – a number they predict is likely closer to 800,000 in 2008.
With so many humans on the trail already, there’s no need to add bad dogs to the equation. I agree with the Fourteener Initiative’s mandate that all dogs be under the control of their owners. That means that unless you’re willing to put in the time to train your dog, then like it or not, you must strap the beast to a leash or leave it at home. All told, it’s better than watching your dog get gored by a mountain goat. And even if your dog IS trained, leash laws are in place pretty much everywhere I've ever hiked, and I have no desire to pay the $200 fine which comes with breaking the leash law in some areas.
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