Since emerging from prehistoric eons as a wandering wild animal, the canine has evolved into one of humankind's most inseparable as well as useful companions.
Accomplished hunters, trackers, police dogs, wartime battlefield messengers, industrial guards, avalanche rescuers, pampered show pieces, television and movie stars, helpers for the handicapped and drug sniffers—there is virtually no area of human existence dogs haven't muscled their loveable way into.
Having virtually exhausted all possible avenues of assistance, canines are now improving upon their traditional role as "man's best friend." Enter the 21st century backpacking dog. Particularly in a magical woodland of endless forests and trails such as south-central Idaho and the Wood River Valley, the lure for hiking is compelling for dog and owner alike.
But mere outings of a few hours are gradually being replaced by a new, hardy breed—the dog-owner duo venturing for days into the backwoods to camp while fishing or exploring Idaho's spectacular natural beauty.
Healthy, conditioned dogs of all sizes are being outfitted with backpacks to carry their own food, water and first-aid kits for backwoods adventures that give new meaning to bonding. Some hikes are genuine tests of endurance.
Among the more prodigious and experienced hikers are valley attorney Jim Phillips and his wife, Evelyn, art director of the Sun Valley Guide. She recalls a 34-day hike of her husband and then 13-year-old son, J.T., from Ketchum to Montana with Rufus, a young Labrador-sheep dog mix and Pepper, a 13-year-old Labrador-Akita mix—"a great way for son and father to bond," she recalls. They replenished their supplies every eight days along the way.
Evelyn recommends conditioning dogs by having them wear backpacks around the house or on short neighborhood walks before venturing on long hikes. Backpacks can be found or ordered through local sports equipment and pet accessory shops.
When Betsy Kauder hiked with her late 80-pound Labrador retriever, Jordan, he wore a harness and pack around the house while she gradually added weight to condition him for the ultimate loads of water and food he'd carry. She believes this sort of acclimatizing strengthens a dog's feeling of being part of a family's activities.
Hiking into backwoods, where the fishing is good, is the lure for Dr. Randy Acker, his 22-year-old son Marcus and their two Labradors, 85-pound Hank, 6 years old, and 70-pound Finnegan, 3 years old. As a veterinarian and experienced hiker, Dr. Acker has advice for owner and dogs. Ensure both sides of the pack on a dog are equal in weight. Let the dog carry his own food, water and other essential supplies, but don't weigh him down with your paraphernalia. Don't take old dogs on strenuous hikes. Wrap food in sealable waterproof bags to avoid spoilage after dogs wade in streams. Acker has written the Field Guide to Dog First Aid: Emergency Care for the Outdoor Dog, and sells a first aid kit to clients, complete with basic supplies to cope with backwoods injuries.
Although billed as a fun event known for its costumes, the Wood River Animal Shelter's annual Paw 'n' Pole offers conditioning for dogs that, while leashed, pull their ski-clad owners around a closed course.
However, not forgotten are those without dogs and who prefer a more sedate and limited hiking routine. The Animal Shelter each Wednesday from spring until autumn provides shelter dogs for hikes on trails in Adams Gulch two miles north of Ketchum.
For those with a special devotion to improving their dog's endurance and agility for backwoods adventure, a new national organization, Dog Scouts of America, holds camps for owners and their canines in various parts of the country. And just like young human counterparts, dogs that excel are awarded merit badges, no less.