On a warm summer day in the Southern Colony Lakes Basin, I remember making my morning coffee just after leaving my tent. I sat with a steaming cup and stared at the Crestones above. I’d arrived the previous night, and was preparing for an early morning ascent the next morning of Humboldt Peak. WOOF! A loud bark shattered the silence, and a large lab ran into my lap. We both got a good splash of hot coffee in our faces.

“Oh hey man, he’s friendly!” I heard from the trail below my campsite, about 80 feet away. I walked the dog back to the owners, and gently reminded him that dogs in this Wilderness area are supposed to be leashed and under control. He said his boy was well-trained – he had just gone after a squirrel into my site. I headed back to my site to make breakfast – over the next few hours, three more unleashed dogs wandered into my campground. Each time, their owners excused themselves when I mentioned the rule. One owner became outright hostile. 

Why do so many owners flout rules about dog leashing? I don’t think it’s because they don’t care. I believe they don’t understand the impact that unleashed dogs have. Let’s explore a few of the effects.

Leashing your dog keeps it safe.

The single best reason for leashing your dog is its own protection. Wildlife including moose, bears, raccoons, porcupines, mountain lions, and others can injure or harm your pet. If it drinks from mountain water sources it may become ill due to parasites or disease. Every year, pets go missing while hiking or climbing with their owners off leash. Mountains are dangerous places, and it’s easy for pets to fall or get lost. A leash will help keep your dog safe, first and foremost.

Unleashed dogs can harm wildlife & impact the environment

The second biggest reason to leash your dog is environmental protection. Studies show that dogs can harm wildlife and cause long-term herd reduction by frightening animals, especially mothers and young. Even if they aren’t injured, repeated chases and stress can cause eventual mortality. The folks at the CFI personally testify to the damage from dogs they see. Dogs also have a tendency to urinate and defecate when off-trail, where owners cannot or will not go to clean up after them. On heavily trafficked areas, like most 14er routes, this causes havoc on water quality we depend on. Leashing your dog ensures they do not chase wildlife, and lets you clean up after them to prevent pollution. 

unleashing your dog on public land

Not everyone is a dog person. Leashes show respect.

As my story demonstrates, even the biggest dog person in the world doesn’t want a dog in their space repeatedly. This applies on the trail as well – many people are allergic to dogs or afraid of them. Many other simply do not enjoy them. Trail etiquette is a time-tested system of norms to show other hikers respect and courtesy. Following the rules and leashing your dogs, no matter their level of training, has always been a centerpiece of trail etiquette. When you let your unleashed dogs wander into other groups and campsites, you aren’t showing respect. We can do better as a community. When the rules require it, leash your dog.

Even a perfect unleashed dog weakens trail norms.

There’s always the person who defends themself, saying “my dog is very well-trained and listens to me even with wildlife or other people.” Even if they’re right, these people fail to understand what openly violating the rules does to other people. People don’t follow leave no trace and trail etiquette rules because they’re afraid of getting in trouble… it’s incredibly rare for someone to get in trouble for littering or camping where they should not be. Rather, most of us follow the rules because we see others doing so, and are afraid of judgement if we openly violate them. They’re what we call norms, and they keep the backcountry clean and courteous (for the most part).

When you hike up trails with your unleashed dog at your side, other people see you and understand you’re breaking the rules. They feel that they also don’t need to break the rules, and may unleash their own dog. However their dog isn’t trained well like yours. chases wildlife and gets into fights with other dogs. You’re the indirect cause of these impacts. Even the perfect unleashed dog weakens trail norms.

So What Are the Rules on Dogs & Leashes?

Most 14ers aren’t a good place for unleashed dogs because they fall on US Forest Service or Wilderness Area. Both types of public land generally require dogs to be under leash or strict voice command. In other words, if your dog doesn’t come immediately when called, it should be leashed. In a few areas, including Mt. Bierstadt & Mt. Evans, rules require all dogs to be leashed.

However, I would challenge all dog owners, even those with well-trained dogs, to consider the impact of letting their dog off its leash. For one thing, most dog owners, myself included, think their pet is better trained than they are in reality. It’s hard to know when a dog will act if surprised by a pika or marmot. Will you be able to get it under control immediately? What message will it send to others? Make the choice you think is responsible – in most cases, leash your dog. Our 14ers could use it.

MtBelford

About the Author: Alex Derr

Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.