Hill skills: how to take your dog walking

Posted by Alex Messenger on 23/11/2012
Bee enjoying the hills. Photo: Roy Plenderleith

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you love a walk in the mountains, and your reasons are probably as varied as the terrain. Perhaps it’s for the solitude, to put everyday life into perspective; maybe it’s for the physical challenge or the social aspect of being out with like-minded people. But I suspect our underlying reasons are more primitive: the basic human need to wander free in wild places.

Why take a dog?

For me, the pleasure of being on the hills is accentuated by having my four-legged friend with me; I enjoy the shared experience, the company and the joint feeling of tiredness as we sit by the fire at the end of the day. But, I equally appreciate that other hill-goers see my dog as a nuisance, intruding on the reasons that they have escaped to the mountains.

I’m now on my third dog: a collie called Skye. She’s nearly two – I got her at six weeks, with the express intention of training her as a mountain rescue search dog. I’ve been a member of SARDA (Search and Rescue Dogs Association) Wales for over  two years and she’s progressing nicely with her training. I also work as a mountaineering Instructor, so whilst running hill-walking or scrambling courses I check with my clients to make sure they are OK with dogs before she comes to work with me.

Controlling your dog

My first consideration was to train her to ignore livestock and not to chase birds. Before a dog can start search-dog training, they have to pass an obedience test and a stock test (often overseen by a local sheep farmer). I trained Skye with this in mind, but it means that I have confidence that she won’t be a nuisance to livestock and I have a reasonable level of control over her.

All owners who take their dog into the mountains have a responsibility to keep their dog under control, those that don’t do a disservice to the rest of us. Bear in mind that what you feel is ‘under control’ may differ to someone who is scared of dogs! If I’m somewhere busy, I’ll keep her on a lead.

I also keep her on a lead in the ground-nesting season, through enclosed fields of livestock or if we’re approaching young children or people who are obviously not keen on dogs (you soon learn to read the body language!). If I felt intimidated by cattle being aggressive towards us I’d take her off the lead – she can run faster than me anyway.

Building up

North Wales Mountain Rescue had at least one dog rescue this summer – a labrador that had decided it’d gone quite far enough for one day. Remember – if a dog is not used to long walks then it needs to be allowed to build up to a long day in the mountains. It’s also not recommended to take young dogs (under 12 months) for full day walks as you can damage their joints. My dog is now happy on all of the grade 1 scrambles in Snowdonia, but we’ve built up to that over time.  Start off on shorter days and build up over time, and a fit and healthy dog will soon be outpacing you.

Dog gear

If I’m taking Skye for a day’s walk, I won’t take a great deal of extra kit: a lead and a whistle (she’s trained to drop or recall  on a whistle), some spare water and a collapsible dog bowl in warm weather (but the majority of the time she’s happy to drink from streams). I also take a Ruffwear harness for scrambling days so that I can haul her up the steeper sections.

Like most dog owners I also have a plentiful supply of plastic bags in my pocket for poop scooping. Search-dog handlers will carry a jacket which tells the dog she is working, a  dog GPS, a spare warm jacket for all the standing around, spare food and water and a dog first-aid kit. The first-aid kit will include a tick remover, dressings, iodine and some tweezers. I know of one dog that was rescued by helicopter after getting injured on a search – now that’s what you call service! It’s also worth keeping an old towel and a bowl of water in the back of  the car so you can dry them off and they can have a well-earned drink.

Winter

If taking Skye out to play in the snow, I’m very aware of the crampons on our feet and discourage her from getting into groups of people. If ski-touring, I’m keen to keep her away from the sharp edges of the skis and the points on the end of the poles. I use a close command which means ‘stay near but not to heel’. Be very careful of ice axes placed shaft first in the ground: the pick will be at dogs’ eye height.

What dog?

We do ask a lot of dogs. Skye has to be afamily pet, happy to sit quietly in a houseof four children, yet also able to workhard all day, be winched into a helicopter,walk nicely on a lead through town, ignorelivestock and get on with our elderly jack russell. Certain breeds will be better at these roles than others.

You could write a book on the subject, but suffice to say you need to decide what you want your dog for. Do some research and then decide whether you can offer a home to a rescue dog or whether to go for a puppy. A larger dog like a labrador or a collie is great for running in the mountains all day but, equally, when my jack russell was younger she used to go up Tryfan and do the harder bits in my rucksack.

One thing’s for sure – whatever dog you go for, train it right and you’ll enjoy many happy days in the mountains together.

Rob Johnson is a self-employed Mountaineering Instructor (MIC) and International Mountain Leader (IML).
Find out more at www.expeditionguide.com.

Find out more:

Doggie dos and don’ts

Taking care around cows

Specialist advice about dogs on moorland is available on www.pawsonthemoors.org 

The Countryside Code applies to all parts of the countryside. Most of it is just good common sense, designed to help us all to respect, protect and enjoy our countryside.

Read the Countryside Code

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Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is Henry Folkard – keen climber, walker and natural history aficionado. Henry is the BMC’s Peak Area Access Coordinator and has an unsurpassed knowledge of all things access and conservation in the Peak District.

Q. When do I need to keep my dog on a lead?
A. This can get complicated, but the short answer is if there are livestock about (even if you can’t see them) or it’s the bird breeding season then a dog must be kept on a lead of no more than 2m. If on a public right of way (but how wide is a footpath?) it only has to be kept under control. On grouse moors, dogs may be banned at all times of the year at the owner’s discretion

Q. What do I need to watch out for with cattle?
A. This is deadly serious – literally. Every year people are killed crossing fields with cattle in them. They can be on public rights of way, but the cattle are startled by a dog, even a well-behaved one. If in any doubt, just keep out of the field. Never get yourself, or your dog, between a cow and her calf. If the worst happens and a cow goes for your dog then leave the dog and get yourself out. The dog will be fine, it can look after itself.

Q. Do dogs eat grouse?
A. Not if they are kept off grouse moors. Generally wildlife gets used to walkers using established linear lines. The problem for ground-nesting birds comes with dogs running off the lead over wide areas – especially in the evening, when they are trying to settle for the night, and in the early morning. Post-fledging young chicks are particularly vulnerable before they can fly. You probably won’t see them– they can be swallowed in a trice.

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1) Anonymous User
23/11/2012
I recommend a flatcoated retriever. I have one who is coming up to 5 and he has walked tirelessly on long walks in the Lake District and in Wales. He has also completed the Wye Valley Walk (over a period of 2 years), the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in 14 days and Hadrian's Wall in 6 days. He has never let me down; he is very friendly and enthusiastic and is always happy.
2) Breckie
24/06/2013
I'd be interested to know the type of training that you would suggest for ignoring livestock. Type of dog is a Belgian Shepherd Tervueren.
3) Anonymous User
25/03/2017
How do you train your dog to ignore cattle and sheep? I would never let my dogs off near them, but I'd also like to walk past them without my dogs singing and barking at them. Any advice?

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