Do Dogs Belong In Backcountry Huts?

words:: Ben Osborne photos:: Caitlin Mitchell

When I was a kid, my family’s first dog, Daisy passed away after a happy fifteen years of life. I was eight years old, and it was devastating. As my parents hummed and hawed about getting another dog, my 10-year-old brother and I made bold, emotional proclamations in an attempt to sway inter-family relations. My brother promised to walk the dog every day— the practical solution. I went the emotional route by pleading to my parents: “A family isn’t complete without a dog!”. A few weeks later we had our lovely mutt, Rugby. With a dog in my house for my entire childhood and through my high school years, I became attached to canine companions.

When I moved away for University, my love did not wane. I have always been a dog lover, although I haven’t taken the step to get one for myself—yet. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who have dogs, and the majority of them are well-trained. They bring them biking, skiing, and even to the bar sometimes. In the outdoors, I’ve been growled at, barked at, and even bit by a dog on the bike trail, but not once does that make me question my love for man’s best friend. But there is one situation i’ve recently encountered that has made me take a step back.

It was New Year’s eve and me and 4 friends had decided to escape the expensive and repetitive nature of New Years in the real world and trade it for a quiet night in the woods.  Naturally, by 6 PM we were deep into our first bottle of wine. The hut was quiet, with just 2 groups (ourself and one other group). There was one dog with the other group, which had been fairly quiet apart from the cute Aussie Shepherd mix that was mainly interested in our food—no harm, no foul. That’s what dog’s do, and nobody in our group was overly concerned.

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Suddenly, headlights flashed by the windows, the stomping of boots shook the small hut, and a blast of cold air greeted us as 4 more travellers and a canine friend had found their home for the night. Before we could say hello to the sweaty travellers, the dogs were at each other’s neck, snarling, barking and letting the world know they weren’t fond of each other. Message received—within seconds the owners had rushed to pry them away from each other.

“Sorry my dog doesn’t like confined spaces—he’s usually fine”, our newest bunkmate explained.

My tipsy brain laughed to itself—doesn’t like confined spaces? Then why bring him to a hut?

Scanning online forums, public opinion is mixed— I went home and googled: Should dogs be allowed in backcountry huts?

“In most cases dogs are wet, dirty, and smell. Just a bad idea.” One user notes. Seems pretty spot on to us.

“You just described most of the human visitor to the huts as well..”, another user notes. Well, that also seems fair.

Lola loves chasing her owner, Caitlin Mitchell, through the snow, but what if that privilege comes at a cost to others?

Plenty of shenanigans go on in a hut—some folks choose to smoke inside, others blair music, some stay up late partying.  Someone is always  breaking one of the “rules” of the hut. The space is communal, but it is also confined, so there is a fine line on what is acceptable and what isn’t. The huts typically have a large, under appreciated team of volunteers who make them usable. Just visiting the hut is making extra work for them, much less spilling beers, leaving extra food, using more firewood than you need, or say—bringing your dog.

Bringing a dog, spilling beer, using too much firewood, bringing a group of ten to a hut, they all seem to beg the same question.

Are these frivolous acts the right of a person who can make it to a backcountry hut? Or are they a completely violation of respect of the builders? Or something in between?

In this particular hut, there were a few rules, on a printed sheet of paper on the bulletin board by the door: clean up after yourself, no smoking, collect your own firewood, and no dogs.

After a tense night of growling and the occasional dog fight over a dropped piece of food, everyone slept peacefully. The owners of the dog that came in second were forced to sleep in the kitchen keeping a close eye on their pup—they took the brunt of their dog’s inability to be around other dogs. I did not really mind, nor did any of the other visitors to the hut. But, what if someone in the hut was allergic to dogs? What if one dog injured another or one of the people, and the situation became a medical emergency? Maybe, this is why the rulemakers of this particular hut clearly noted—no dogs.

It seems harsh to ask a person to leave their dog outside the hut on a cold winter night. If I saw a person leaving behind trash, being too loud, I would have no problem politely asking said offender to stop. For our fluffy friends is there a double standard? These backcountry huts are a ticking timebomb—every time we step foot in them, more repairs are required. Should we afford that privilege to dogs? Who is reaping the benefits, and who deserves what privileges? When you have a cute Australian shepherd lying in between you and your partner, it works. When that same dog is eating the precious charcuterie board the other strangers in the hut carried 10 kilmometers into the backcountry, it isn’t working. Bringing your canine friend on adventures with you is an understandably awesome thing to do….but when does it become inappropriate? –ML