Hiking with dogs in the Sierra and the deserts

Hiking with dogs in the mountains is something I have been doing since I was a kid in Tahoe in the 50s, going fishing on the Truckee River with my Springer Spaniel named Pepper. I would continue to have Springer’s for the rest of my life.

After having five dogs so far, I have learned a few things to keep them healthy and avoid costly vet bills. First of all, I would not have it any other way.  Only death could ever separate us.    I consider a dog to be an asset in my life, when I cannot see or hear. Not only do they become your best partner with proper training, but they become your protector. When they start sniffing the air, it is obvious that something is up, and a warning to pay attention.


Oftentimes, it can be an animal like a bear or deer that they smell.  All dogs want to chase animals, but it is a good way to lose them. I don’t allow my dog to get too far ahead of me anymore, because I lost a dog that way.

I was hiking along Caples Creek one year when the river was raging from storm runoff. I saw my dog run across Jake Schneider meadow, and that was the last I ever saw of her. I believe that she made a dire mistake that day and drowned.  I met some hikers who said they heard a dog barking down by the river.  That was her in trouble, and I couldn’t get to her in time to help. That is why I am so protective of my dogs today and always carry a leash in my pocket.

Some of the other dangers dogs can face out in the sticks are rattlers, porcupines, bears, coyotes, and rarely, lions.  One thing is for sure that if you hike long enough, you will run into every one of these animals. A lot of times my dogs would run right over a rattler stretched out on the trail, and by the time I got there, the thing was going off, ready to strike.  I trained my dogs from pups to fear snakes.  Dogs are actually quicker than a snake, and one of my dogs killed one.  He came around from a boulder out in Buttermilk and had a dead rattler in his mouth.

Porcupines are another critter that you hope your dogs never get into.  There is nothing worse than having to pull out 50 quills from your dog’s muzzle. The quills can go through the nose and get stuck in the gums.  Some can penetrate organs and kill a dog. That is why I carry tweezers in my pack just in case.

pine creek 005 (Medium)

Speaking of coyotes I have looked down more than once and seen two dogs instead of one walking behind me.  The second animal was a coyote trailing along just like he knew what he was doing. As long as you do not react with fear, they walk off as silently as they came.  I would be very cautious around a pack of coyotes.

The most scary animal besides a bear is the mountain lion.  This is one time my dog literally saved my life.  I was hiking in Utah coming down through a chute in the ledges, when it narrowed and became thick with brush.  I let my dog, Spenny, go ahead of me, and he started growling at something below a small cliff ahead of us. Immediately, a lion jumped up and scared the living bejesus out of us.  The thing was growling and had its paw out to nail me.  Spenny started crying, and I started yelling as loud as I could.  Thank God the thing jumped back down and allowed us to get the heck out of there. It must have had cubs down below us.


The other big bummer to discuss in the lower elevations of the Sierra foothills on the west side is poison oak.  If the dogs get into it, they will spread the oil in the car and the house. It can cause a serious problem for those who are allergic to the plant.  Ticks can play hell with dogs, and then transfer onto your person, your car and your house. I have pulled off hundreds of ticks from my dogs and quite a few from myself. It’s a good way to get Lyme’s disease.

There are so many other things to watch out for like avoiding hot trails that will inflame a dog’s feet causing them to limp.  You want to make sure their toenails are cut, and after that, the rocks will keep them ground down.

Foxtails are another thing that can cause a dog discomfort and become infected. Shaving the fur between the toes and under the arm pits will go a long way to solve this problem.  It is also important to shave inside the ear flap to prevent foxtails from getting in. This can ruin a trip real fast.  I had to come all the way out of the Grand Canyon one time when my dog got a foxtail in his ear.


Another thing dogs can do if their foot pads aren’t tough enough is rub a hole that will bleed and cause limping. The pads can crack and bleed, especially from swimming, and Vaseline can help with that problem.  I carry a couple of dog boots in case any foot problems happen.  First aid treatment for foxtails and inflamed feet is to soak them in a iodine solution and rinse.

As you can see by now a lot of bad stuff can happen to your buddy out on the trail, and it is important to be prepared. I have actually had to carry one of my dogs out over my shoulder for several miles due to an injury, and it was difficult. With a heavy dog it is impossible.

Now, on to the training and what is necessary to teach your dog how to negotiate the wilderness terrain. The first and most important thing is that the dog needs to be in control at all times on or off the leash. They must come when you call or whistle, because their life could depend on it.

You don’t want your dog to chase animals, but they will do it.  Try to train them to have a soft mouth even when they get an animal like a marmot.  It is possible to teach them not to kill, but you have to be able intervene quickly. They are just doing what they were instinctually born to do as predators.  Because we feed them, they don’t need to kill for food.

dm 009

The Park Service uses this as one of the reasons to not allow dogs.  Yet, they allow stock which can cause much more damage. Once again, the dog needs to be in control.  It is probably the hardest thing to do to train a dog this way. In this day and age it is mandatory for the master to be as well trained as his dog.

From the time my dogs were pups I trained them to ford streams, cross logs, rock hop in the big talus, climb and stay quiet in the woods.  So quiet and stealthy that people pass by on the trail with their dogs and do not see us just feet away.

That is the way you want to be in the woods.  Where you, your dog, and the mountains become one.




4 Responses to “Hiking with dogs in the Sierra and the deserts”

  1. Toni Tram Says:

    Glad you’re writing again. Love your information and pictures. My dog “Caddis” fishes with me whenever I go–I call her my fishing handicap- she is right by me in all the streams, usually behind me but if I get a fish, she is as excited as I am. I let her sniff them before I release them–she seems quite pleased with herself. Thanks for your blog-Toni

  2. mary Says:

    What a great write up. I have encountered many of the animals and reptiles you write about. I have my old man Border Collie who is so awesome and a new puppy Border Collie in training ….my biggest fear for them and myself is the cat and the snake. I love your very informative blog. Mary

  3. Ken Casper Says:

    Fantastic writing. I lived in Mammoth during 1976-1987. Have you ever searched for the Lost Cement Mine? I have great story to tell you as I searched for it for 30 yrs. Need to speak in private however. Do I know you from that Mammoth era?

  4. john Says:

    I look forward to reading your articles, thank you.

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