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Keep your pup safe while hitting the trails

We live in Colorado for a reason – the outdoors! And, just as much as we enjoy hitting the trails, so do our dogs. The smells, the sights and the places to explore are enough to get your intrepid companion’s tail wagging faster than you can lace up your hiking boots!

A little planning and preparation make getting outside so worth it. After all, a good plan equals a great experience! One of the best things about hiking is that it requires almost no special equipment, and there are so many gorgeous places to explore, but there are a few things to think about before you head out the door with your pup

  • Investigate the location. Not every park or trail allows dogs, and sometimes, within a park, only some trails are dog-friendly. If you need help finding a tail-friendly trail, do a quick internet search to find an area that welcomes dogs.
  • Consider the trail. Read reviews to learn what others have said about a trail to see if it’s right for you and your pup. Consider not only the terrain but also your dog’s personality. If he’s shy or maybe isn’t a fan of crowds, choose a less popular trail or go at an off time.
  • Think about your pup’s physical condition. Just because your dog is the canine version of Usain Bolt with backyard sprints, don’t assume he can hike 10 miles. Like humans, dogs need to work up to longer hikes. Also, consider your dog’s age and physical condition, including if their paws have enough callous to walk on rough or hot surfaces.. Be honest when you think about what your dog can comfortably manage.

We spoke with Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager for Jefferson County Colorado Open space, about some tips to make your hiking experience the best and safest possible.

What are a few important things for owners to keep in mind before heading out?

Owners need to bring a few hiking dog safety essentials, such as a leash, identification, proof of vaccinations, water, snacks, bowl, poop bag and a poop bag carry out system. (It’s not OK to leave the bag next to the trail, even if you’re coming back to get it. Leaving the bag next to the trail is littering. No excuses.)

As for that leash, use it all the time! Many visitors will tell us their dog was off-leash because “no one” was around. Nature is someone. There may be no people or pets to see, but there will be coyotes, deer and snakes in the immediate area. There may be fragile species like ground-nesting meadowlarks, sparrows or ducks. Writing nature off as “no one” is disrespectful to the trails and parks you love. Keep your dog leashed because nature is someone.

It’s also important to know that voice control does not exist in the outdoors. Most visitors have no idea how their dog will react to a moose, rattlesnake or a coyote. The risk is too high. Always, always, always use a leash to protect people, pets and nature.

What do owners need to know and be aware of when they’re enjoying the day?

Pet owners need to be aware of wildlife hazards. Dogs take off running after deer, elk, moose, porcupines, rattlesnakes and coyotes. All of these animals are dangerous to dogs, and they can be injured just by giving chase.

Speaking of rattlesnakes, every year we treat dogs with rattlesnake bites — usually on the face, neck or chest, making them incredibly dangerous to dogs because the swelling can quickly impact the airway and/or the heart. Leashes don’t prevent bites, but they mitigate bite risk significantly. A leash may prevent a dog from nosing into a snake tucked away off trail or help an owner pull a “snake curious” dog away from a snake located on or next to the trail.

Pet owners also need to realize that not everyone loves dogs. We know. Crazy! But, really, some don’t. Don’t be that visitor who lets their “friendly” dog run up on other people, pets, kids and wildlife. It’s disrespectful and dangerous. We’ve seen kids knocked over by friendly dogs, we’ve seen dogs fight, and we’ve even seen people fight over off-leash dogs.

Heat stress, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are devastating. Pet owners must know the signs and symptoms and how to administer first aid. Many dogs will not let you know they are in trouble until they collapse, and by then, it’s often too late. Indicators include heavy panting, ropy saliva and a lack of coordination. If your dog stops in the shade on a hot summer day, it’s trying to tell you something. Do not ignore this behavior.

At the first sign of heat distress, stop and get the dog to shade. Using a water-soaked bandana, moisten the pits, groin, ears and paw pads. Fan the face and snout. Call for assistance. The dog will need a veterinary examination following a heat distress event.

During the COVID-19 crisis, what are you telling people – meaning, what should they be doing differently now during the crisis?

COVID-19 has put enormous pressure on our parks. Visitation is at an all-time high. Physical distancing is a good tool to improve trail courtesy anytime. We want all park visitors to slow down and communicate with each other as they pass on the trail.

Please note: the Centers for Disease Control produced guidelines recommending people do not let their pets interact with unknown people and dogs.

“I love meeting dogs while I am on patrol,” said Mary Ann. “In memory of my father, I always carry dog treats with me in my pack. If the owner gives me permission, I like to give treats to leashed dogs who will sit. Sometimes, I give treats to leashed dogs who are too excited to sit. Meeting all the happy dogs enjoying our trails means the world to me.”

Mary Ann Bonnell has been a professional park ranger and/or naturalist since 1991. Her first job was as a naturalist on Catalina Island as an instructor for the Catalina Island Marine Institute. When she returned to Colorado, she worked as a naturalist for Jefferson County Open Space. Her first full time, permanent job as a park ranger was at Roxborough State Park. Mary Ann also worked at Barr Lake State Park and gained experience rangering in an urban environment with the City of Aurora. She returned to Jefferson County Open Space in 2014 to supervise the Park Ranger program and was promoted to visitor services manager in 2016. Mary Ann still patrols one day a week and provides about 40 lectures and classes a year on local topics, including coyote ecology, rattlesnake safety, raptor identification, birding by ear, wildlife tracking and trailside botany.(read more about Mary Anne here).

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