Your dog isn’t superhuman
While heading back down Giant Mountain last Thursday, I came across a family struggling with their ascent. They were about a mile-and-a-quarter into their hike and were definitely having second thoughts about their trail choice.
The mother of the family was the first one I encountered. She was doubting her and her sons’ ability to make it to the top. More importantly, though, she was concerned about their dog.
Though the human elements of the family were having a rough time, it was only noon. They had water, food and solid footwear. It might take a while, but if they were determined, they could make it to the summit over the course of the day. The canine member of their family, however, was not doing as well. This middle-aged black Labrador retriever was struggling. By the time I came across them, the dog was clearly past its limit. It was panting hard and had, more or less, refused to move forward.
A few days earlier on June 21, another family found themselves in a similar situation. At just about a mile into their hike up Giant, they had turned around because their dog was struggling. They had started early but had failed to bring enough water for their pet. During their descent, their 75-pound golden retriever collapsed from heat exhaustion. An assistant forest ranger was summoned to help carry the dog down to Giant’s Washbowl, where it was able to cool off in the water and recover sufficiently to make the rest of the trip down the mountain.
Fortunately, the family I ran into was attentive to their dog’s condition. The first words the mother of the family spoke to me were “I think we might have to take our dog back down the mountain.” They had two extra liters of water and were paying attention to the fact that the dog was having a rough time. When they mentioned this to me, I told them about the golden retriever on the 21st, and they immediately decided to send the father of the family back down with the dog. The relief from this decision was palpable for just about everyone there.
Other dogs haven’t been so lucky. As recently as the summer of 2018, a St. Bernard died of heat-related complications on Giant. The sad truth is that hikers often overestimate the abilities of their canine companions when it comes to the heat.
In looking at their lupine past, one can assume that they are able to manage all sorts of challenges. Their ancestors and their wild relatives run for miles after large game and thrive in environments that range in temperature to a much higher degree than we see here, right?
The harsh reality is that it’s too easy for us to anthropomorphize dogs. We romanticize how hardy they are and their value as companions to the extent that we ignore some simple, natural realities. Hiking in the summer is actually much harder for most dogs than it is for people. All of that hair on their body traps heat very efficiently. They evolved to use that hair in harsh, cold weather. In the summer, they need considerably fewer calories to maintain themselves and seek shaded rest as often as they can get it. Lacking the ability to sweat like humans do, dogs struggle to reduce their body temperature efficiently. The result is an inability to dump heat when they need to.
It’s important to remember that enthusiasm can be easily mistaken for good health — a dog that looks like it’s “smiling” may be a dog panting and struggling. Dogs are eager to please and don’t always have a sense for their limits. Some people may be lucky to have dogs wise enough to let them know when they’ve had enough, but that is rarely the case. Many dogs will push well past the point of safety, so you only know they’re in trouble when it’s too late.
Dogs need regular exercise in order to be ready and in shape for strenuous exercise, just like us. They cannot be “weekend warriors” the same way people can be. While we may be able to push through our discomfort to reach the summit, that is an ability borne of choice. We do not give dogs the same luxury. No chocolate Lab is going to sit down and say, “I think I’m going to head back to the car. See you in a few hours.” Dogs rely on us to make the right decision and be good advocates for them.
This is by no means a column aimed at restricting dogs from hiking. That day on Giant, I saw no fewer than six other canines on the trail. Some were running up just like their human partners, showing far less fatigue than I was. My hope is only that dog owners who hike pay very close attention to their companions if they choose to take them up mountains in the summer heat.
For those who are new to hiking with dogs, here are a few points to consider. To start, research your hikes. If there is considerable and constant elevation gain, think about leaving your dog at home. Also consider exposure and terrain. In addition to hot temperatures and humidity, hot rocks can quickly raise their body temperature. They are closer to the ground, covered in hair and have no good way to get rid of excess heat on their own. You can check their paws with your hands as a good indicator for their body temperature. Another important indicator is the color of their gums. A dog in distress will have light or white colored gums.
If they are adequately trained for this kind of hiking, make sure to bring plenty of extra water and food for them as well. Bring as much water for your dog as you bring for yourself (if not more). You should never take to the trail in the heat of summer with less than two liters of water. Double that if you plan on bringing a pup along.
Signs of heat exhaustion are similar for dogs as for humans. Lethargy, stumbling, disorientation and heavy panting are indications that they may have had too much. If dogs do show signs of heat of exhaustion, give them water and cool them down as soon as possible. Get them into the shade, and help them regulate their temperature. Cool their bellies and paws with water, and give them space to breathe. Make sure they have an opportunity to rest and rehydrate.
Most importantly, if they show any of these signs, turn around immediately. These mountains will always be here for you. The same cannot be said of your canine companions if they overheat on a hike.