By: Jane Cox  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

“Is he something special, or just a mutt?” the man asked as I passed him on the trail with Trigger, my 65-poundAustralian Shepherd mix. Wearing his pack, Trigger walked beside me with his tail wagging, ready, as always, to meet this inquisitive stranger with the blunt question of parentage.

I have hiked and backpacked all my life, but I am now substantially limited in what I can carry, so Trigger helps.

One of the first people to hike in a national park with a service dog, I am aware that Trigger and I have the responsibility to set a good example and to educate people about service dogs in national parks. Often when we step off the trail for a break or to let people pass, we get questions; I always take time to answer them as accurately as possible.

  • What kind of service does he perform?

  • Did he go to service dog school?

  • Where do you get a pack dog?



While many dogs are trained by professionals and there are schools for guide dogs, hearing dogs, and for other common functions that dogs perform, many more dogs are trained by owners to perform the services necessary to meet their own specific needs.

When I adopted Trigger I didn’t know he was to become my service/pack dog. But as our relationship developed and his training progressed, I also learned that I qualified under the Americans With Disabilities Act to declare him as my service/pack dog. This made it possible for me to take him into national parks and other places where pet dogs are not allowed.

If you qualify to hike in the back country with a service dog, one personal question that you should be prepared to deal with is the obvious one: Why do you need a service dog? The details and nature of your response may depend on who is asking and why. While the ADA does not require you to show proof of your restriction, I do inform park superintendents that I qualify under the ADA for pack carrying assistance so that they can notify their corridor rangers of this policy exception.

When I meet people in the high mountain camps or on the trail I tell them about the ADA that mandates a much more user-friendly definition of disability than that of the federal government for a Social Security disability grant. The ADA uses the terms ‘restriction,’ ‘limitation,’ and ‘impairment’ interchangeably with the word ‘disabled.’

The Law

Although the Code of Federal Regulations was amended to allow all service dogs in the back country of national parks, the use of a service dog for pleasure will undoubtedly challenge commonly held stereotypical impressions about disability and disability rights. Under what circumstances can a person who functions well in day-to-day living be entitled to assistance under the ADA for the purpose of recreation? The ADA makes no distinction between a recreational access issue and any other kind, but it does give some physical parameters to help define a disability.

I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. Lacking precedent, laws are interpreted by how they are used (from the bottom up) and by how they are interpreted (from the top down). When laws are challenged, the ruling of the courts often modify how they are applied. One single court case can have a tremendous influence on how a law is applied, because it sets an expectation for future understanding. That one case has the potential to make a law either a lot stronger or a lot weaker. Without a broad scope of acceptance, a law can become narrow in application.

Laws are more fairly tested after they are applied in multiple circumstances over an extended period of time. They become stronger and more viable as they are used, and as popular opinions are formed. The ADA has been tested a lot in structural and mechanical accessibility and employment related issues, but not in terms of recreation. So far, I am only aware of one case (Casey Martin vs PGA) that has tested the ADA as far as recreation is concerned, and that case is pending for a final decision in the Supreme Court. Martin defended his right under the ADA to use a golf cart in the PGA.

Understandably, there is a serious concern that the open nature of the ADA will encourage abuse within it. Along with every right there is the responsibility to act with respect and consideration for those we meet, and for those who are likely to be most impacted by our actions.

The Future

Once, in the Grand Canyon, a mule driver singled me out of a group of hikers standing off the trail waiting for the mules to pass.

“You, the woman with the dog, do you know pets are not allowed on the trail?” she asked.

“Yes I do. This is a service dog,” I answered.

She continued, “Well I want to be sure he won’t bark at the mules.”

“No, he won’t bark at the mules.”

After more questioning, doubts, and drawn out speculations I said, “Look, the mules know my dog is here, but he isn’t going to do anything but lie there until you pass.” And he didn’t move.

After they passed, one young man gave me a broad grin and a thumbs up, and said, “I really like the way you handled that woman.” Others in the group agreed and wished me a great day. Well, I don’t know what I said that was so great, but I do know this: There is a whole lot of support from the hiking public for dog packing.

So, is there a future for dog packing in national parks? There could be, if people traveling with dogs in national parks (and other public lands) show consideration and respect for other visitors. At this time, only dogs performing a needed function to compensate for a physical (or mental) limitation of their handlers can accompany a person on trails in national parks. But canine advocacy organizations such as the American Kennel Club are working to improve the image of dog owners as responsible, considerate people with well-behaved dogs. AKC instituted the Canine Good Citizenship Program as a measure of good dog behavior.

If we as dog owners want to access back country of national parks, we have to actively educate ourselves and others about canine trail manners and regulate dog packing to minimize the risk of losing the freedoms we still have. Many other users of public lands have organizations to promote their interests. Dog owners do not have any real national voice, but yet there are a lot of dog owners who would like to be considered as fair share users of public lands.

If there were an organization to promote dog packing, could the members reach a consensus? What is our part of the bargain? What kind of privileges would we like to earn? Hiking with a dog (as a pet) in a national park should be an earned privilege, not a right, simply because of the great volumes of traffic the parks get and the limited management resourcesand budget restrictions that the NPS has to work with.

Those who promote hiking with dogs should consider the following questions:

  • What kind of training should the dog have?

  • Should there be a certification process? (for non-service dogs)

  • What kind of an agreement should the owner sign?

  • Should there be a performance test for the human/canine team?

  • Who should issue the certification or conduct the test?

  • How would such an organization establish and maintain credibility?


I am new to NAIA. I regard any success in terms of politics to be extremely nebulous and fleeting, but I do have some happy memories and ideas to share with you in my new book Dog Packing in National Parks: How a Pack Dog Became a Service Dog. I was lucky enough to have found a way to hike in national parks with my canine partner – just as an ordinary person doing what she wanted to do, and I want to share that success with others. To order the book, send check or money order for $14.95 plus $5 shipping and handling to Cross Country Publications, PO Box 3369, Central Point, OR 97502. For information about discounts, send e-mail to crosscountrypublications@cybernetisp.net


About The Author

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Jane Cox -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

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