I was talking with a friend one night, and she told me about a rough experience she had on an unfamiliar trail. She and her two dogs decided to explore a new park and headed out on a popular trail. Thinking it would be challenging but doable, they trekked onward until all of a sudden they were stuck. She and her dogs found themselves in the middle of a field of sharp rocks. The trail was unclear, there were no other hikers around, and her dogs were becoming distressed. Safety was at risk. What do you do?
I had a similar experience hiking in Maine with Mica. We read about a trail up to a picturesque lake, and though it was a few hours to hike, we decided to give it a try. Onward and upward, we kept hiking thinking that the lake had to be just ahead. We’d ask hikers coming down how far we had to go and kept getting mixed answers. Finally, me and my tired dog found ourselves surrounded by huge boulders with no path forward other than dancing across the tops. And we still had no idea how much farther we had to go to reach our destination. I was really worried about Mica slipping and falling between the boulders, especially since we were both tired. What do you do?
This is a situation I hope none of you experience, but it is a very real possibility. Here are my thoughts on how to handle tough situations like this, and how to cope when you find yourself or your dog in over your head.
Stop. Feeling that niggling in the back of your mind that says, “I’m not sure about this…?" Starting to feel doubt or concern? See your dog lagging or showing signs of stress? Stop. There is no rush. Stop. Find a spot off the trail, sit down, and get your bearings. Let you and your dog take a break.
Breathe and stay calm. Especially if your dog is starting to become stressed, take a breath and just spend a few minutes calming yourself and your dog. Again, there is no rush. Panic is your enemy on the trail. Instead, stop, drink some water, sit down, and be steady. Breathe.
Find stable footing. Even if it’s just a small patch of ground, find some place that you and your dog can feel solid earth beneath your feet. This is incredibly stabilizing and reassuring for your dog and can help them relax. In the situations above, both me and my friend were worried about our dogs slipping or falling and our dogs were distressed about the strange footing. Stop. Look for a place you can safely reach that has firm ground, and stabilize yourselves.
Give your dog what she needs. Signs of stress include: lip licking, worried eyes, panting with the corners of the mouth pulled back (grinning), whining, restlessness, hesitancy, and shaking. Some dogs may be comforted by being in your arms and on your lap, but others would find the confinement even more stressful. In any case, stopping and sitting down off the trail helps to ground your dog and gives them a solid reference point: you. Maybe he needs a break, maybe he needs comfort, just take a few minutes and give your dog what he needs. You might find it calms you down as well.
Do not keep going. Reference your map or start heading back downhill. Your instincts and your dog’s instincts are saying this is a bad idea, so listen to those promptings. It’s not worth going on for any reason if it may compromise safety. There’s always another day. Head back.
Rest. One of the biggest, scariest reasons people get stuck is they forget they have to go back. Getting to your destination is only halfway. Going downhill is not easier than going uphill, especially on tired legs. It’s just as easy to trip, slip, or fall going downhill. Plan your trip accordingly, and do not push further if you are feeling tired. Stop, and go back. When you’ve felt you are in over your head, and you’ve decided to head back, stop and rest for at least 15 minutes.
Help your dog vs let them navigate. It depends. Mica is normally quite sure-footed, and I often will let him pick his own way across rocks, logs, etc rather than helping. If your dog is tired or just naturally tends to rush, you may want to bring them in real close and help them navigate the trail when it gets tricky. This is a huge reason why I use harnesses when hiking. It’s an easy handle, and it provides proper weight support across their body. They are very handy in situations like this!
Be careful and take your time heading back. Rushing when tired leads to slipping. Watch your step, encourage your dog to do the same, and take your time getting back to level ground.
If you’re really up s**t creek and there’s no paddle in sight, there are two things I’d recommend. First, if you’ve seen other hikers, wait for one (but not too long) and ask for help. When safety is at risk, there is no shame in reaching out for help from others. It’s most important that you and your dog get back to your car safely. The other option is to call someone. Call a friend, the park ranger station, or even the police to see about getting help. If you’re out of cell service and there are no other hikers around, you need to dig deep and make your own way back.
I hope these tips are helpful, and I also hope you never have to use them. Good planning and research can prevent a lot of mishaps. If you do find yourself in over your head, regardless of the situation, the number one priority should be keeping calm and staying safe.
Have any hair-raising stories of scary situations? Share them below.
A huge thank you to everyone in the Facebook group Hiking With Dogs for your photo submissions!
Adventure On! (safely!)