activities & sports
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Don’t have to be pro athletes to enjoy it.
I adjust my headlamp. My frozen breath catches the light.
Two excited dogs are barking, shaking my truck. I lay my skis on the trail, pointing the tips toward the woods. I unload the dogs.
I snap the gangline on River and Belle’s harnesses, click my skis into their bindings and secure my poles. My dogs are quiet now; for a brief moment, they stand still at the end of their lines. Their legs are shaking with excitement, waiting for the command.
We’re off. River and Belle slam into their harnesses. The bungee line absorbs some of the jolt. I lean forward and kick off, skate skiing down the trail, propelled by two dogs into the night. Together, the dogs and I reach speeds of more than 30 km/h (about 19 mph).
This is skijoring.
This is what we live for!
Why I Skijor
I live in Canada, where there’s snow six months of the year. I have a pack of rescue dogs who, like me, are high energy. Skijoring is a great way to keep all of us exercised and happy. If we didn’t get out, we would go crazy from cabin fever.
I am an avid skier; my parents taught me to ski as soon as I was able to walk. Even with a few decades of skiing under my belt, however, skijoring offers me a challenge. My dogs push me to ski at a higher level than I would otherwise attempt. Well-trained skijoring dogs don’t want to take a break and aren’t tempted to sit and chat. They want to go!
That’s why I skijor. Try it out yourself and discover your own reasons. Following are some tips to help you on your way.
If you’re considering skijoring, take a realistic look at its two main components: you and your dog. You can, by the way, skijor with any breed of dog. It’s as common to see a house dog as a Husky bounding through the snow with a skier in tow.
Dogs should be at least 30 pounds and a year old, and in good health. Some smaller dogs certainly have the will, but small dogs come with small frames, and skijoring can put undue pressure on their bodies.
Before starting this sport, check in with your vet to be sure your dog’s up for it. Fitness matters for you, too. Take your own physical condition into account. Skijoring can be demanding on the knees and lower back.
If you’re new to skiing, look for a Nordic center and take a few crosscountry lessons. Two basic techniques are used when skiing behind a dog. Which one you use depends on the type of skijoring you intend to do.
Backcountry adventurers will run into deeper snow and the dog (or dogs) will help break the trail. This type of skijoring requires cross-country skis that are wide and have turned-up tips.
Is it speed you’re after? If so, you’ll be skiing on flat, wide, groomed trails using a technique called skate skiing, in which the tips of the skis are kept apart and the tails are kept together, getting the kick by alternately pushing off the skis’ inside edges, much like ice skating. Look for stiff, short skis with almost no turn-up at the front.
Don’t forget the ski wax! Using glide wax on your skis makes it easier to move over the snow. Remember to choose a wax that suits the conditions in which you’ll be skiing.
Another important skill: stopping. Here again, there are two main methods. First, the snowplow, in which you point the tips of your skis toward each other and dig down with your heels. The other quick way to stop is to fall down! Put your skis on and practice falling and getting up again before you attempt skijoring.
Skijoring, like any sport, has its dangers; people and dogs can get hurt. But a few simple safety tips and common sense go a long way toward keeping accidents to a minimum.
Warm up. Use a brisk walk with some quick turns to warm up and cool down.
Know your ability. Stick to trails that are the appropriate length and difficulty for both your and your dog’s skill levels.
Protect your melon. Simple: get a winter sports helmet that fits and wear it.
Brush up on obedience training. Sit, stay, come—your dog should have the basics of obedience down before you go out on the trails. A dog you can communicate with easily means a safer and more fun outing.
Practice. Before you get on your skis, put your dog in the skijoring harness and go for a walk. Your dog needs to know the basics of how to behave in harness before you head out on the trail.
Who doesn’t love shopping for their dogs? Fortunately, when it comes to skijoring, the initial cost is pretty modest. A skijoring harness and a line for your dog and a waist belt for yourself will set you back around $100, although you can, of course, pay more. (Tempting though it may be, don’t try to repurpose your dog’s walking harness, or even a weight-pull harness. They’re not constructed to accommodate the pressures skijoring places on a dog’s body.)
Skijoring harnesses come in all sorts of designs and styles; the most common are X back and H back. No matter what style you choose, it should fit your dog well. A properly fitted harness allows dogs to pull from the shoulders and fits snugly enough not to move up and restrict their airway. (I liken it to putting on a backpack; the harnesses should sit on the shoulder blades.) A proper fit is critical to your dog’s comfort and safety.
Ideally, take your dog with you when you go harness shopping. If that’s not practical, or if you’re ordering online, measure carefully. Each outfitter will have its own sizing and measurement instructions, so be sure to follow them carefully. When shopping for gear online, measure twice, order once!
You and your dog are tethered to one another with a gangline (also called a tugline), which is between 8 and 12 feet long and has a section of bungee in it. The bungee makes the experience more comfortable for both of you by absorbing some of the shock when your dog takes off suddenly at the beginning, or when you fall (which may happen quite often!).
The waist or skijoring belt is worn low; at the front is a quick release attachment for the gangline. A wider belt is preferred because it spreads the pressure over more of your body and eliminates some of the stress on your lower back. A properly designed belt will allow you to use your hips to offset the dog’s pulling force.
Mind Your Manners
Choose an appropriate trail. Skijoring is a great sport for any nonmotorized, multi-use trail. Do not take your dogs on trails groomed for classic cross-country skiing, as they will likely ruin the double track set in the snow, making it unusable for others.
Keep your distance. Whether it’s another skijoring team, dog walkers or other skiers, no one likes to be tailgated. Be especially careful to give other dogs space; not all dogs are comfortable being chased.
Communicate your passes. If you are overtaking another trail user, the polite thing to do is yell “Trail” and wait until they signal that they’ve heard you by moving to the side.
Pick up after your dog. So basic, so important. Cleaning up after your dog goes a long way to ensure that trails remain open to all dog-related activities.
Skijoring strengthens your bond with your dog. You are literally attached, flying down a trail, releas-ing endorphins and sharing new adventures. It’s also the ultimate in positive reinforcement. Skijoring dogs get to pull, and are rewarded for it—the harder they pull, the faster they go. Skijoring taps into their natural instinct to move.
I’m often asked if training dogs to skijor makes it more difficult to walk them. My experience has been that allowing my dogs to pull in harness actually makes them easier to manage on daily walks. Running off their energy on the trail means they’re calmer, happier and more ready to listen.
Ever wonder how a professional athlete handles the pressure of competition and a grueling 6-month long schedule? For burgeoning NBA star Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, it’s a walk in the park … the dog park. When Klay isn’t in the gym or on the road, he likes to take his dog Rocco, an English bulldog, to his local off-leash area at Cesar Chavez Park in nearby Berkeley (CA). We’ve seen him there, playing fetch and doing what dog people do … unwinding, taking in some fresh air. “With me, my friends or my family, I can’t help but talk about basketball, so this is my escape,” Thompson is quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle profile.
ESPN analyst and hall-of-fame player Charles Barkley calls the 6 ft 9 Thompson the best NBA player at his position—strong praise. Thompson’s team, the Golden State Warriors, apparently agrees, recently resigning their star shooting guard to a multi-year, $70 million contract. What was Thompson’s response at the post-signing press conference? “We were trying to get the contract signed, and all he wanted to do was go home to his dog,” mused Warrior general manager Bob Myers.
We know the joys firsthand of Cesar Chavez Park OLA, it’s where the idea for The Bark was born. In fact, the 17-acre OLA overlooking the San Francisco Bay was founded by Bark co-founder Claudia Kawczynska in 2000. One of the founding dogs was Claudia’s dog Nellie … named after former Warrior coach Don Nelson. A bit of history we think Klay Thompson would appreciate.
Dog's Life: Travel
Golden State Getaways
When thinking about summer getaways with your dog in California, think cool. Think water. Think spectacularly scenic and away from bright lights and big cities. Here are a few special places that will surely put a smile on your dog’s snout.
North Coast. The redwoods are fat and the North Coast beaches are often leash-free and cooled by a blanket of fog. Take an unleashed hike on the wild side at the magnificent coastal 62,000-acre King Range National Conservation Area in Shelter Cove, and stay at the Halcyon Inn Bed & Breakfast in Eureka. And don’t miss the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile route through some of the biggest redwoods in the world (including Luna, made famous by Julia Butterfly Hill’s extended stay).
South Lake Tahoe. Your dog can swim in the sparkling blue waters of Lake Tahoe and fish with you on a charter boat. Spend the night at the cozy cottages of Holly’s Place, with its leash-free 2.5 enclosed acres, and dine outdoors at the very hip and dog-friendly FiRE + iCE, right under the Heavenly gondola.
Mono County. A visit to the strange and ancient Mono Lake is about the closest you’ll come to exploring another planet. It’s an otherworldly must-see, but far too salty for dog paddling. Save the swimming for the nearby beautiful Eastern Sierra lakes, Lake Mary or June Lake, for example. Like ghost towns? Sleep at the lovely, super-dog-friendly Edelweiss Lodge, in Mammoth Lakes.
Cambria. A seaside haven, Cambria opens its sandy arms to the canine set. Cambria is home to a very popular dog park, but if you like more space, head to the 440-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where dogs can trot around off leash along one mile of heavenly oceanfront.
Big Bear Lake. The lakeside mountain resort community Big Bear Lake in southern San Bernardino County boasts crisp, clean alpine air year round—a real boon in these parts. You and your dog can hike, swim, rent a boat and ride right behind horse heinies on a Bear Valley Stage Lines stagecoach. Dog-friendly lodgings abound. Try Big Bear Frontier Cabins & Hotel, right on the lake, or Golden Bear Cottages, where each cute, pet-friendly cabin sports its own little fenced yard.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Teaching your dog to do more than just heel, sit and stay
Francoise Mira of California will never forget the day advanced obedience skills saved the life of her beloved mixed-breed dog Leilah. She had been hiking with Leilah and her Australian Shepherd, Copper, in a canyon near her home. On weekends, the area was closed off to automobile traffic, making it safe for off-leash dogs.
“All of a sudden, I heard a car coming, illegally off-roading,” says Mira. “I called Copper to me but Leilah was on the other side of the road. I told him to sit and at the same time, I gave the down-stay visual signal to Leilah and she dropped [to the ground]. Because I was able to give her that Utility down signal, a hand signal, I was able to have them both stay still and let this car go through.”
In competition, obedience at its best can look like magic. With every nod of the handler’s head or sweep of her arm, the dog responds with an enthusiastic burst of motion or a quick halt or down. Dog and handler glide together in perfect sync as the judge calls out instructions, and the small crowd gathered outside the ring quietly admires their performance. At the conclusion of the class, the judge announces which teams qualified, and to those pairs he hands out the placement ribbons, as the audience applauds and the dogs’ tails wag.
“Obedience builds confidence in the dog,” says Kate Cowles of Iowa, who competes with four shelter dogs in UKC obedience, St. Hubert’s Companion Dog Sports Program and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Rally O. “For me, the point of doing competitive obedience is to build the bond.”
At its worst, competitive obedience can look like torture for both partners. Some handlers constantly jerk at their dog’s leash or practically drag the poor thing around the ring. Other handlers become so nervous about the trial setting that they pass on that stress to their dogs, who constantly lick their lips and look for a chance to bolt.
If this is your idea of obedience, then it certainly does not conjure up images of fun with your dog. But for many people nationwide, it is a favorite pastime, and their dogs enjoy the extra attention, travel and overall excitement. Perhaps if it were called something more flashy, like “precision teamwork” or “synchronized stepping,” more dog-lovers would pursue this challenging sport and discover its many benefits.
Modern obedience in North America derives from exercises created by the world’s first Working Trial society, the Associated Sheep, Police and Army Dog Society of England. The society hosted its first Working Trial in 1924 as a practical test of each dog’s knowledge in three areas: control, agility (over varied terrain) and scent work.
Helene Whitehouse Walker is widely regarded as the founder of American obedience. In 1933, she adapted the society’s exercises to hold her own test in New York to prove the intelligence of her Standard Poodles. In 1937, Walker and her assistant, Blanche Saunders, promoted the young sport by taking their dogs on the road for a nationwide traveling obedience exhibition.
Today, the society’s three fundamental applications can still be found at an obedience trial, no matter what the venue. Control is exhibited at all levels of obedience, especially through heeling and the dog’s response to the handler’s verbal commands or, as they progress as a team, silent hand signals. Agility is demonstrated at the Open level by asking the dog to jump over a panel jump, broad jump and bar jump. Lastly, scent work is found at the highest level, Utility, in which the dog must find an object with his handler’s scent among a pile of articles and return with the correct one.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) is perhaps the largest and most well-known venue for obedience. Though it currently only allows purebred dogs, the AKC Board of Directors is considering a listing service that would allow mixed breeds to participate in obedience, rally, agility and tracking. All dogs, including mixed breeds, are welcome to participate in obedience programs through the American Mixed Breed Obedience Registry (AMBOR), the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), St. Hubert’s Companion Dog Sports Program and the United Kennel Club (UKC).
UKC obedience competitor Ray Czubek of Illinois recently retired his mixed breed, J.D., one of only three dogs to earn her AMBOR Obedience Trial Championship. Having competed in both UKC with J.D. and in AKC with German Shepherds, Czubek finds the former to be more relaxing and family-oriented. But no matter where he participates, it’s working together with his dog that counts. “Most people are instant-gratification-oriented,” says Czubek. “I like the precision teamwork, and find it challenging to keep my dog motivated. You have to make the effort.”
In the 1970s, when Arnold started training a Shetland Sheepdog, she soon realized that choke collars, harsh commands, and withholding praise or play would not work. But, she discovered, food was an excellent motivator, and she asked her trainer if she could bring some to class. He told her no. Her Sheltie performed wonderfully and happily at home with the food, but was miserable without it in class.
“I decided to sneak food into class, and it fell on the floor from her mouth,” says Arnold. “The instructor started screaming at me in front of the class, and I said, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ I turned around and walked away. I knew there had to be a better way. I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was a turning point in my whole life.”
The introduction of operant conditioning and clicker training to competitive obedience over the past 10 years has fostered a growing movement toward more positive and motivational instruction. In his book Clicker Training for Obedience, Morgan Spector explains how operant conditioning and the use of the clicker can shape behaviors that, together, combine into a complete obedience exercise. Dogs learn step by step instead of being expected to learn an entire skill set all at once.
The Birth of Rally-O
“I love Rally,” says Certified Pet Dog Trainer Diane Lavigne of New York. “I think it’s a great way for a dog to get ring experience without going into the Novice [Obedience] ring. The exercises are based on what you need to do to get a Novice title.” Lavigne also competes in UKC and AMBOR obedience with her mixed breed Hershey, AKC obedience with her Golden Retriever Skye, and is training her young Golden, Eagle, for his competition debut. In December 2005, Hershey was ranked third in the nation by AMBOR for UKC Novice Obedience.
Even if you’re not interested in competition, obedience training has value. “Obedience doesn’t benefit the dog,” says Arnold. “The obedient dog benefits, because then the dog can have a good life, a chance to run free and be a dog, whether it’s in a dog park or out in the woods somewhere. It’s the most amazing thing to me, people who let dogs free that they can’t control. Love is taking the time to train the dog to keep it safe.”
News: Guest Posts
Surfers get furry
We were first introduced to Jedi through our Smiling Dog submissions, and we think Jedi Seja may be the next worldwide furry celebrity. Born on a puppy mill farm and surrendered to a rescue, Jedi had a rough start. Luckily he was then adopted by his parents Katie and Patrick Seja, and they’ve turned his life upside-down. His surfing career started in 2011, and has taken him across the nation for many surf competitions. Jedi’s interests include surfing, being an advocate for animals, working with charities, and smiling while having fun.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Round two in the urban debate
This is a follow-up article to our political primer on dog park campaigning. We hope that you found some of the information helpful and that you are now ready to sit down with town planners and design that perfect dog park.
Let’s start by suggesting a different term for dog park. We know it’s an easy term to use, but it often evokes irate comments like: “What do you mean you want to spend my taxes on a bunch of dogs?”; “What about safe playground equipment for my kids?”; “Drinking fountains for dogs, you gotta be kidding!” Play it safe—try using terms like “off-leash” or “multi-use area,” stressing the human component at all times. The acronym-clever COLA people (Citizens for Off-Leash Areas in Seattle simply call theirs OLAs (a convention we’ll adopt here). In Berkeley, “multi-use area” refers to the multiple legitimate uses, including our leashless dogs, that are allowable in sections of the park. In Indianapolis they refer to their recently inaugurated area as a Canine Companion Zone.
In doing the research for this article and in talking with many of you who have contacted us for more information or to share your wisdom and experience, we realize that this material cannot be easily condensed into just two parts. So we will be turning this into a regular feature, with future reports including case studies from your parks.
A recap from last time: because most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” you’ll need to change this policy.
But few policymakers or administrators are risk-takers; they’ll need reassurances that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to use public land to recreate with a pack of off-leash dogs. This is to be followed by gentle and constant reminders that your request isn’t coming out of left field and you have the numbers to support your proposal (with signed petitions in hand), that you do pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and, lastly, that you regularly consult with your dogs before voting. By doing most of your homework online you can find many excellent examples of successful programs (see resources) to bring to your town’s decision-makers. Now that you have piqued their interest, the next step is to lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria.
Guidelines can help move the process along but keep in mind that, as Mencken noted: “For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution … and it is wrong.” One of the first things we learned in gathering this information is that while it is tempting to use guidelines from other cities or even from other parks within the same city, they should be used judicially and only as outlines to help shape the planning process and not as across-the-board standards. As Judy Green, a veteran of off-leash planning in Virginia, cautioned, “it is important to remain as flexible as possible,” leaving room for “fine-tuning afterwards.” Site-specific and community-specific needs must be addressed. A fifty-acre area within a five-hundred acre park might be too small for one city, but in a dense urban area like New York it could be positively palatine.
It is beyond the scope of this space to write about macro-level planning issues or site analyses—we all know that a city should provide a series of neighborhood parks accessible to the daily needs for all its citizens, including those with dogs, with major municipal or regional parks available for special jaunts. In the ideal world, dogs would be welcomed to share the total park experience with us, as they do in Australia, and not only be limited to permitted sectors. Taking these limitations into consideration, we’ll concentrate on some guidelines for a prototypical off-leash park, if only in the abstract. Operational topics, such as sponsoring groups, user-permits and maintenance issues will be discussed in the next issue.
Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.
We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.
Other design considerations:
• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Canoeing with your best friend beckons
You love to canoe and camp. Your dog loves to be with you. So why not go together? Picture it: You and your best canine pal, swimming, meandering along sparkling waters and sleeping under the stars. For paddlers, the arrival of summer means getting outdoors, and if you’re thinking about taking a dog or two along for an overnight trip, a little planning will ensure a safe and happy journey.
First and foremost, consider whether your dog will enjoy canoe-camping. Will he tolerate the tedium of sitting in a boat, be at ease in and around water, and sleep soundly in a tent? For your maiden voyage, opt for an easy daytrip close to home rather than a hardcore back-country expedition. Most dogs will hop into a canoe out of curiosity, especially if treats are involved, but allow yours plenty of time to feel secure.
Before launching, take a swim, roam the shoreline or play a game of fetch. “Don’t forget that your pup has been watching you pack up at home, sat patiently for a long car ride, and is in a new and exciting place,” says Kathryn Howell, owner of Dog Paddling Adventures, a Canadian travel outfit offering wilderness excursions for people and their dogs. “To [expect] her to sit still like a good pup for an hour in the boat may be too much to ask.”
Lazy-water journeys are just right for Maggie and Truman, our black Labs. With the timeworn Mad River canoe my husband, Brian, has paddled since childhood, we head for the Housatonic River in Ashley Falls, Mass. The dogs know this place well, and at a quiet spot where the river curls between cornfields, they’re off like a shot, racing ahead as we lug fishing poles and camping gear.
The launch is a moment of excited anticipation, but Maggie sits regal as a queen as we move upstream, unfazed by the river life Truman finds utterly fascinating. His forehead wrinkles with concern when the canoe bumps past submerged rocks, and the hairs along his back stand at quivering attention when a beaver slaps its tail on the surface. “Oh, Truman,” we often say in mock exasperation, although his antics reveal what we’d otherwise miss, from sun-baked turtles to wood ducks poking around in the backwater eddies.
“Every dog,” the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift once said, “must have its day.” I think of this famous aphorism as we paddle under a glorious cobalt summer sky to the rhythm of the current and our whims, gliding beneath low-slung branches and past drifts of purple loosestrife. Maggie and Truman trot along shore as we portage around rapids, and flush frogs out of the shallows while Brian fishes the riffles. After a few casts and no strikes, we whistle for the dogs and move on.
Let’s face it—water is never-never land for many dogs. Our Labs would take “just one more” swim all day if we let them. That’s why a lifejacket is essential, even for bona fide water dogs, as they can be affected by fast river currents, cold water, or a disorienting fall out of a capsized canoe. Doggie personal flotation devices (Ruff Wear makes a great one called a K-9 Float Coat) provide security for puppies, seniors and timid swimmers; they also keep wet dogs warm after a swim, or cool by trapping moisture and blocking the sun.
At camp, good canine manners are a must (well-behaved around fellow campers and mellow during quiet hours), while you should be well-armed with a tick remover and other grooming tools. Our trips usually entail wet dogs rolling in sand, with tongues lolling and paws pointing skyward, but letting dogs be dogs pays off later. “By the time dusk settles in, they are fast asleep,” Howell says of her canine clientele. After dinner, we kick back by the fire and listen to owls call out and coyotes yelp in the distance. In front of us, the river is an inky ribbon beneath a sky white with stars. Critters scurry in the darkness, but Truman is snoring and Maggie is content watching embers shift and fall. Later, we scrunch into our sleeping bags and try to sleep through the twitching and groaning of dogs slipping in and out of dreams.
If canoe-camping with your dog isn’t postcard-perfect on the first try, don’t give up. Skip the campout, perhaps, and take a relaxing low-key afternoon paddle together. Most dogs would rather do anything than be left behind, and with patience and time, you’ll be rewarded with a seasoned traveling companion.
Our reasons for taking the dogs boil down to simple truisms. They love the river, anything we do is more fun when they’re around, and there are lessons to learn when we pay more attention to them than to ourselves. It’s possible, like Maggie, to be wet and muddy yet act like a lady. And, like Truman, it’s good to wag your entire body with joy now and then.
In the morning we break camp and point the bow downstream. We’ll return to witness the fiery pageant of autumn, and again when the river comes alive in spring. For now, we watch our Labs flick their tails back and forth as they drift along with the slow-moving current. As the thought crosses my mind, Brian says it aloud: “It’s a good day to be a dog.”
Volunteering can make a difference
We often hear from people who are volunteering their time and talents helping animals. So many people are moved to action in the groundswell to help neglected and abused dogs—fostering rescues, transporting animals, quilting blankets, fundraising—the list goes on. It takes a village to meet the unfortunate demand, and too often, even that’s not enough. But it’s exciting when we’re contacted by somebody who has transformed their passion into action. A photographer named Brian Moss reached out to us recently, sharing some photos he took of dogs at a nearby animal shelter. The images are quite extraordinary. Brian has adopted strays, and is a longtime advocate for animal rescue. But in his words he “wasn’t walking the walk.” He’s part of a growing trend of professional photographers volunteering their considerable skills to shelters—capturing the heart and soul of adoptable animals for the world to see. These portraits can be lifesavers ... for the animals, and, in many ways, for the people who take them. See Brian’s photographs.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
“Vision,” Danelle Umstead says, “is to have sight, an idea, or a dream.” Danelle’s immediate dream is to win gold for the U.S. in alpine skiing at the upcoming Paralympic Winter Games (March 7–16) at Sochi, Russia. Danelle teams with husband Rob Umstead who acts as her coach and sighted guide as they race through the courses. Rooting the couple on in Sochi will be Aziza, Danelle’s new guide dog. Danelle began working with Aziza this past summer, after her longtime guide dog Bettylynn (shown here with Danelle and Rob) was forced to retire due to optic nerve atrophy. Bettylynn will be pulling for the couple back at their home in Park City, Utah, with their son Brocton.
At the age of 13, Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes complete darkness. Her vision is “spotted” and she can only see up to three to five feet in front of her, and even then, only contrasting colors without any level of detail. In 2011 she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Still, none of these hurdles have kept Danelle from achieving her best.
Danelle was introduced to adaptive skiing by her father in 2000, who acted as her guide. She quickly fell in love with the sport—the freedom, the speed, the exhilaration. After she began training and working fulltime with Rob in 2008, competitive success soon followed with Paralympic Bronze medals in Vancouver, 2010, nine World Cup podiums and Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships. Her success relies heavily on trust and communication—100 percent trust in Rob as he guides her down the hill at top speed. It’s similar to the trust and communication that she had with BettyLynn and is working to build with Aziza. Danelle and Rob have created Vision4Gold.org as a vehicle to mentor junior disabled athletes by sharing her story and offering encouragement. We’re hopeful that Danelle realizes her vision in Sochi.
Update: Danelle has finished 5th and 4th in her first two Paralympic events at Sochi and hopes to climb the medal stand sometime in her next three races.
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