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Leave Your Crag Dog at Home – Outside

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Are you really going to put thousands of hours into training your pooch to be good at climbing or ski touring?
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I had just clipped the third bolt on a warm up route at a crag called The Shire when I heard the shouting below me. The ruckus shattered the idyllic quiet of a Kentucky spring day at the Red River Gorge, one of America’s most iconic climbing areas. I glanced down to find my belayer yelling at another party. Unbeknownst to me, their dog had snuffled through our gear and eaten our lunch.
“Haha, little rascal,” the dog’s owner said. “Isn’t he cute? Dogs are gonna be dogs.”
I quickly climbed to the top of the route and clipped the chains. My partner lowered me and I began to assess the damage. Their pup had pushed over my pack so the roll top unspooled and had eaten my sandwich and all of my crag snacks. He’d chewed halfway through my friend’s quesadilla before she’d alerted the dog’s owner.
We’d driven seven hours from school for a weekend climbing trip now our day was ruined by a dog owner’s inability to be responsible at the crag. We no longer had enough food to continue to climb, and the crag was enough of a hike and a drive from our campsite that it wasn’t worth returning after a resupply. We climbed til our bellies ached and then trundled back to Miguel’s in search of pizza.
I’ve been a climber longer than I’ve been just about anything else, and I’ve met every kind of crag dog imaginable. The sleepy ones, the hyperactive ones, the defensive ones at bouldering spots that bark until their owner returns to the ground. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last 15 years: there’s no good reason to bring a dog to a crag.
Sure, I’ve met some good dogs. But the crux of the matter isn’t the dogs or their behavior. It’s the fact that I can count the number of good dog owners I’ve met on one hand. Now, I’m not here to tell anyone they don’t love (or exercise) their pup enough. But almost no one trains their dog enough to expect it to behave at the base of a crag.
Here’s the thing: dogs can’t take pieces of information and generalize them like humans can. Training that applies to climbing doesn’t translate for dogs to skiing or hiking or anything else. Take my friend Liz Morrow, a K9 handler for King County SAR, for example. She wanted a super smart and trainable puppy to join her local Search and Rescue group, so she found a breeder that specializes in working dogs and acquired a German Shepherd who had a particularly keen sense of smell.
Morrow has worked tirelessly with her dog Lyla to train emergency recall, leash skills, and staying calm in high-stress situations. This dog can find live people and dead bodies in the woods and is the gentlest and most respectful dog I’ve ever seen. She’s amazing. And Morrow, a climber herself, still leaves Lyla at home when she goes to the crag.
Training a dog to stay out of trouble at a crag is different than search-and-rescue, she told me. “I think Lyla would be a total mess at the crag.” She went on to tell me that “We’ve put in thousands of hours of training with Lyla, and if we had focused those hours on crag dog skills maybe my answer would be different.” But training doesn’t cross over and cover all scenarios.
No amount of “He’s friendly!” shouts from 100 feet away will make me comfortable with your off-leash husky charging me pell mell. It’s not cute to steal food from broke college kids’ bags, and it’s certainly not endearing to watch your dog erode the crag or tear through crowds of belayers trying to focus because it saw a squirrel.
People who like adventure sports love being outside, and assume their dogs do too. But most folks bring their pooch along because it’s convenient, not because they’re actually focused on the dog’s needs. “Is the dog actually enjoying being there?” asks Morrow. “Are the people meeting the dogs needs or is the dog suffering in the heat and overstimulated with unmet needs because it’s convenient for the owners?”
Folks love recommending working dogs to people who hike because they are smart and have lots of energy. They can keep up with you. But dogs from the herding group are bred to be really sensitive to movement. They are genetically coded to want to control how you—and anyone else at a crag—move through space through barking and kettling you. A lab, meanwhile, may not even think to bark at a stranger.
And sure, you can control those behaviors through hours of intensive training, but the second you’re off your game with reinforcement history—being consistent about how you reward or discourage your dog for certain behaviors—the dog no longer has any clue what you want.
Morrow is a backcountry skier, and likes the idea of one day teaching Lyla to ski with her. But dogs can’t generalize their skills or knowledge the way people can. When she takes Lyla on trail runs, she wants the dog to stick right by her side. But for skiing, moving metal edges around quickly in 3-D space, she doesn’t want Lyla anywhere near her. “I can put in a lot of hours into training a whole new skillset, where I am not having a good time skiing—I am dog training and I happen to be on skis,” she says. “I can develop positional commands and then generalize them to snow and proof her off movement. Or, I can leave her at home until I’m willing to do that.” That’s the part that most climbers miss.
Few recreationalists seem to realize that they can leave their dog at home for a few hours while they do their outdoor sport. If you can’t for fear of what the dog might do, why would the dog behave any better at the crag?
The town of Alta, where I used to live, has one of the strictest dog policies around. That’s because Little Cottonwood Canyon is an important watershed for Salt Lake City, and dog poop can poison the water supply. “Feces from dogs and other domesticated animals are washed into streams and tributaries of the watershed,” reads a statement from the Town of Alta. “These streams and tributaries feed directly to your drinking water tap. In fact, it can take less than 24 hours for water you see in a stream high in the watershed to be treated and reach your drinking water faucet in the Salt Lake Valley.”
Some of the best climbing in the nation sits in gorges cut by rivers. The water that runs through the Owens River Gorge, a world-class climbing destination near my house, supplies one third of the tap water for Los Angeles. The Bishop climbing rangers constantly post reminders about climbers not picking up after their dogs. Along with being a source for all kinds of worms and parasites, leaving dog poop on private land—like the popular Happy and Sad Boulders, which sit across the gorge and whose parking lots are owned by the local water and power utilities—can lead to landowners revoking access.
“But my dog is so good!” I hear you. But just because you have a good dog—which in this case would have to mean a dog that’s so lazy it will fall asleep the moment you arrive at the crag and not wake until the moment you leave—doesn’t mean there is any reason to bring it along. Building a well-rounded adventure dog that can be well behaved in a variety of environments takes many thousands of hours, hard work, and a steely commitment to a consistent regimen. To be honest, it’s far more work than most anyone will put in. That’s the reason that I, a dog lover who climbs and skis, will not adopt a pet until I know I’m ready to put in the work. So please, do me, my friends, the soil, water quality, and serenity of the great outdoors a favor and leave your dog at home.
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