As a reserve park ranger for the City of Poway, I attended a trail safety seminar last week. Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your dog safe on hikes.
March 20 marked the first day of Spring, and with it, the rattlesnakes are out for the season. Some may be kind of lazy, dozing on warm earth of the trail. Their colors are so close to the dirt and leaves, you may not see them until you are right on top of them. More dangerous are the snakes that lie along the edges of the trail, just under the bushes. If you or your dog get too close, one could strike without warning. A rattlesnake doesn't need to be coiled or rattling to bite.
Look for a triangular-shaped head to identify a rattlesnake. Then again, don't get that close!
The edges of the trail offer more hazards. Here in San Diego, poison oak is abundant, and although it isn't a rusty red yet like it will be later in the summer, it still can cause terrible itching. If your dog brushes against it, and then you touch the dog, you can also be exposed. Our ranger, Annie Ransom, explained that you can touch poison oak many times and not be bothered, then one time...wham, you're miserable.
Carry individually packaged wipes or poison oak "soap" that will help remove the poison before it causes irritation. Camping supply stores carry these aids.
Ticks and insects
Another hazard along the trail edges is ticks. Ticks carry Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which can affect people and dogs. They are out in full force, believe me. I rode my horse yesterday, and picked four ticks off his belly and two off of me when we got home. UGH! Ticks rest on the leaves, waiting for a warm-blooded host to walk by. They then jump on for a hearty meal. Check yourself (especially your hair!), your dog, and your clothes after hiking. I headed straight for the shower, after dumping my clothes at the door to the laundry room.
Use tick preventatives for your dog, like Frontline and Advantage. Read the label to be sure you bought one that repels ticks, not just fleas. Check your pets anyway after hiking-- you don't want the ticks to drop off and jump on you! Camping supply stores also carry tick-pullers for removing ticks that have already attached. Learn how to remove a tick here.
Insect stings from yellow jackets and bees are another risk. If stung, scrape off the stinger with a credit card or something similar- you can't just pull it out. People who are especially vulnerable to a bad reaction should carry an epi-pen, available from a physician. Benadryl will usually provide enough relief for most victims of a sting. But Benadryl might make you sleepy, so be careful about where you are when you take it. You don't want to drive if you're drowsy. (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor- this is not medical advice.)
Keep to the center of the trail, and keep your dog on a leash. Using a leash is the law anyway, and it is for your dog's protection. Be a good citizen too: carry out your dog's waste, even on remote trails.
It's early in the year, but we'll still have some hot days. Even if it's not terribly hot, carry water for yourself and your dog. Dogs don't sweat, and they can dehydrate quickly when out on the trails.
I'm amazed at how uninformed people are about the dangers of heat exhaustion in dogs. Your dog will run hard and do his best to keep up, never complaining. If he stops to rest, get him in the shade, offer water, and let him cool down.
One of my most heartbreaking stories is from a friend, a physics professor, whose dog died while hiking on the trails one morning. By the time he got the dog to the vet it was too late. He just didn't realize the risk. I listened to a grown man sobbing into the phone, "I killed my dog." I will never forget it, and neither will he.
Be prepared and aware
By now you're probably afraid to set foot on any trail! Don't be; just hike smart and be prepared and aware.