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Joan Merriam: Spring is here

Spring is finally here after a long, strange winter of record drought followed by record rain and snow — like the snow and hail that hit just ten days ago! I suspect we’re all looking forward to enjoying the season’s milder and more predictable weather when we can get outside with our dogs without having to think about muddy trails, icy sidewalks, and generally miserable conditions. We live in a wonderful area for doing just that, with virtually endless possibilities, from dog parks to lakes and rivers to friendly city sidewalks to back-country trails.

However, if it’s been a while since you and your pup have been off the couch and you’re considering something more than a stroll around the block, it’s a good idea to visit your vet first to rule out conditions that could limit your dog’s tolerance for exercise.

Keep in mind that asking dogs to do a 10-mile hike in the Sierra when they’ve never walked more than 30 minutes would be as foolish as you trying to run a marathon without any training. Even the most energetic puppy can poop out quickly on the trail, plus lengthy or demanding excursions can cause injury to his still-growing bones. These kinds of strenuous hikes can be equally hard on your less-active senior citizen dog, or one that’s overweight. And for short-nosed breeds like pugs and bulldogs, vigorous exercise can also create breathing difficulties and overheating. In short, think about your dog’s age, breed, weight, and health problems before you take on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Even if you plan to take your dog off-leash, always take a leash with you, and check first to make sure off-leash dogs are allowed. Remember that not everyone you meet along your route loves dogs, so have your leash ready whenever you see someone coming. Even the best-behaved pup can accidentally knock down a small child or elderly walker, obstruct a mountain biker, or race off after a wild animal — like the time Joey flushed out a huge bear not ten feet ahead of me on the trail barely a mile from home.

Veterinary experts tell us that we shouldn’t let our dogs drink from streams, lakes, or canals, but we all know it’s almost impossible to stop them from lapping up water wherever they are. Just be aware that you may have to pay a visit to your vet a few days later (think: giardia).

Speaking of water, Nevada County boasts hundreds of opportunities for both you and your dog to take a refreshing dip. But remember that the Sierra snowpack will be melting for weeks to come, which means water temperatures may be much colder than you’re expecting. At the same time, rivers and streams will be running dangerously high and fast, so it’s best to avoid them until much later in the summer.

As much as spring and summer bring a multitude of delights, they also come with some less-enjoyable elements for our canine companions. At the head of the pack is our old friend, the foxtail. This grassy weed explodes in the late spring, showing up everywhere: on our hiking trails, in our back yards, even along city sidewalks. Anyone who’s ever dealt with this ubiquitous weed knows the problem: every one of its plumes is a seed head lined with barbs called awns that catch on everything they touch, whether it’s your socks or your dog’s nose. Those razor-sharp barbs travel in one direction only: straight ahead, and attach themselves to a dog’s fur where they burrow into its flesh.

The main dangers posed by foxtails are foreign-body reactions and infections. While they’re not the least bit picky about what part of your dog’s anatomy they invade, it’s rare that foxtails will move into a dog’s body cavity or internal organs. More often, you’ll find this grassy invader between a dog’s toes, inside its nose or eyes or ears, or even in their genitals.

The best thing you can do is avoid places that are heavily infested with foxtails — especially when they’re brown and dry. And if you know your dog has been ambling among these weedy assailants, thoroughly examine him afterward, paying special attention to his ears, eyes and paws. Watch for signs that a foxtail may have made its home on or in your dog: constant sneezing, ear-scratching, or eye-rubbing are the most common. In that case, call your vet as soon as possible.

But no matter what, don’t let the fear of foxtails — or bears or intestinal parasites or raging rivers, for that matter! — keep you from heading outside with your canine companion this spring. You’ll find limitless delights right around the corner and just a few miles from home . . . so get out there and savor the best of what our magnificent county has to offer, before the inevitable scalding days of summer take over.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue

Asking dogs to do a 10-mile hike in the Sierra when they’ve never walked more than 30 minutes would be as foolish as you trying to run a marathon without any training.
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