We are very lucky to have miles and miles of wonderful trails here, but San Diego County is also home to chollas cactus, rattlesnakes (not to be confused with the similar looking, but harmless, gopher snake), coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and a variety of unpleasant vegetation like thorny weeds, foxtails, and poison oak. All of these range from causing a lot of irritation to being outright deadly.

To keep your dog safe, follow park rules. Most parks require dogs to be kept on a 6’ leash, and for people and dogs to remain on trails. You may feel this limits your freedom, but staying on existing trails keeps you out of bothersome vegetation like poison oak and chollas cactus (that irksome cactus that jumps!), and can allow you to more easily see rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the trail. Use a Spindrift  flat-out leash for hands-free hiking, or pick from several of Ruffwear's hands-free style leashes. And as always, be sure to take along plenty of water for you and your dog. Your dog can carry his own water in a Ruffwear Singletrack backpack. Stash a collapsible water bowl like the Olly Dog Sipper or Lapper in one of the pack’s pockets.

While you may adhere to the “leaves of three, leave them be” practice, your dog doesn’t, and romping through the abundant poison oak in most of our canyons usually results in the oil, urushiol, being transferred from our dog’s fur to our skin. Many dogs have thin fur on their bellies, between their toes, and on their ears and faces. These areas can erupt in the same rash of itchy bumps that drive us crazy! One of worst features of this family of “poison” plants, which includes poison ivy and poison sumac, is that all parts, including the roots, contain urushiol, even in winter when the leaves have dropped. And speaking of leaves, the urushiol in dead leaves can remain active for years. 

Getting the oil off your dog’s coat requires thorough bathing as the oil can continue to rub off for days before you or your dog ever develop an allergic reaction. Keep some earthbath grooming wipes with you so you can wipe down your dog to minimize exposure to the oil. Then, as soon as you can, thoroughly bathe you dog. If your dog develop a rash apply Thayer’s alcohol-free witch hazel to calm and sooth the skin. In addition, apply DERMagic’s  Skin Rescue Lotion to the rash. It’s impossible to not scratch the itchy rash, and often a bacterial infection can set it. DERMagic’s lotion calms the skin and aids in healing. It works great on human skin suffering from the same rash!

As if poison oak isn’t bad enough, there’s also jumping chollas. Although there are chollas “gardens” out in the desert, where you’d expect them to be, they can occur in any of the parks with native vegetation like the upper section of Kate Sessions Park, Mission Trails Regional Park, etc. The “jumping” part of the name reflects how easily cactus segments break off when slightly brushed. They then stick to whatever brushes against them: your dog’s face or leg, your sleeve, etc., and thanks to barbs on the end of the spines, they are really difficult and painful to remove. Apply Thayer’s alcohol-free witch hazel to calm and sooth the skin, otherwise it may sting for days.

Dogs are fascinated by rattlesnakes and typically don’t leave them alone, which often results in getting bitten in the face. They just don’t understand the warning rattle, so it’s up to you to be alert and aware of your surroundings to avoid chance encounters. Since reptiles can’t regulate their body temperature, it’s the air temperature, not the time of day, that determines if rattlesnakes are out in the open or cooling off in a shady spot. If you live where there is a good chance of your dog encountering a rattlesnake, especially when they’re home alone, you may want to consider rattlesnake aversion training.

Getting outside for exercise, rest, and relaxation are key to having a healthy body and mind. Doing it safely just takes a little thought and preparation.