My Dog is the Worst Ski Partner

She presses herself to the front door, as though I might forget to bring her along if she were anywhere but obstructing the entryway. On the drive to the trailhead, whenever I flip the car blinker, she rises from the backseat, her head a periscope, pivoting to gather her bearings. At the trailhead, she bolts from the car, canvasses the parking lot, then heads up the trail or the skintrack, leaving me still deploying skis, boots and pack at the tailgate.

In classic dog-owner fashion, I’ve personified everything about Niva, my 10-year-old border collie. And if she were human, she’d be the most annoying of all skier types, the bro who won’t stop spewing stoke—about where she skied or how rad she got or that she found face shots on literally every turn. Every. Damn. Turn. I choose to ski with her anyway.

Marcus Caston finds a way to share the stoke with his pup in the Ogden, Utah, backcountry. Though some people, including the author this piece, Tyler Cohen, argue that dogs don’t generally belong in the backcountry, one way to keep them (and you) safe is to simply pop them in your pack. [Photo] Cam McLeod

Let’s get something out of the way. I generally don’t think dogs belong in the backcountry. I know: Your dog is the best behaved dog and follows voice commands so well her nickname could be Siri or Alexa. So does mine—she’s a border collie who could probably figure out how to operate even the most intricate tech bindings. But an animal with a brain the size of a clementine really doesn’t belong in avalanche terrain, where even mature, responsible and well-trained humans struggle to make smart choices. 

Imagine if, in addition to fresh snow messing with our rational thought processes, opportunities to chase squirrels, snow freezing to our stomachs and the need to sniff one another’s butts further inhibited our decision-making capacities. The heuristic-traps acronym FACETS would require a whole lot more letters. And should your first-aid kit really need to include a skin stapler for when one of Fifi’s legs gets fileted by someone’s edges?

Dog training aside, my overall belief on bringing pets along for the trip boils down to this: Unless Rex’s attendance is going to enhance the experience—for everyone—leave him home. Otherwise, it’s a dog walk with skis. Which is why, only when it’s early morning and few people will be out or when Niva and I are both in need of some fresh air after a long day at/beneath the desk, we go skiing together, most frequently in a glade just down the road from home. 

But she’s still the world’s worst ski partner. On the uptrack, she’s always a half-dozen switchbacks ahead, literally clawing her way up the slope to top out before I do. Once there, she immediately rears to drop in, without even pausing to consider which way we might descend. On the way down, her yipping is a constant soundtrack. (I get it, skiing is great, but is it that great?) And after one lap, she’s almost always done, beelining down the approach route for the car, whether I want to do another lap or not.

She’s impatient, inflexible and unable to communicate anything but stoke. She steps on your tails, compromises most kickturns, pees in the skintrack and tracks wet clods of snow melting from her coat all over the floor when we get home. If she were a human, I’d have severed the partnership after our first tour. 

But here’s the thing: That clementine-sized brain never seeks to sleep in; it passes no judgment on subpar snow; and it doesn’t worry that, by going just a little farther or higher, she’ll be too late for dinner or work or that appointment later. To her, skiing is a total immersion in winter, the freedom to wander the woods in whichever direction she wants, the lightness of flinging herself down a hillside to be buoyed by soft powder. It’s pure joy, every single time, every single turn. 

Maybe someone who sees skiing that way—and only that way—is actually the perfect partner. 

This article was originally published in Issue #144. To read more, pick up your copy at or subscribe.


  1. Kevin Chase says:

    Hi Tyler,
    With 25+ years of breeding, training and competing hunting retrievers and 25+ years of ski patrol working with SARs dogs, I can safely state that the dog you described does not fit the description as ‘well trained’. Avy dogs trained to CARDA, CRAD or WBR standards do not act the way you have described a ‘well trained’ dog.

    You left out the most important component. Having your beloved dog with you (or your party) in the backcountry compromises your decision making. To be completely honest with you Tyler, if I joined you and your dog on a trip with you dog acting as you described, I would have parted ways with you and headed back to my truck. Backcountry is an advocate for people to get avy trained. Unless your dog has achieved a CARDA, CRAD or WBR certification, leave them home.

  2. Todd Davis says:

    As with so many issues today people come down on this one as either ADAMANTLY for or against. No in between. I skied in the BC for many years with my last dog, Stella, a border collie/cow dog mix and she was a great partner. She listened, didn’t take off without me, got in the skin track line with everyone else. She learned quickly it’s easier not to be breaking trail; if she was stepping on anyones tails a simple “back” was all that was needed. She didn’t go after wildlife. I was careful not to bring her if my other ski partners didn’t like having dog along but my core group generally didn’t mind. I didn’t bring her if the snow was epic deep because it’s physically hard for them. I also didn’t bring her if avy danger was particularly high or we were heading into unfamiliar terrain. She seemed to love skiing or maybe it was just all the snacks.

  3. I sincerely loved your article. Your writing style was joyful and visual.

    It made me happy to read about your endlessly spewing stoke machine. Dogs are the best!

  4. Ricky Buttons says:

    I think this is missing a point that “backcountry” and “avalanche terrain” are not the same thing. You can be in the backcountry (ie, your glade) without being in a dangerous situation. If the dog is with you in terrain that cannot–or is unlikely–to slide (ie, less than 30 degrees) than what is the problem? Are people out there sending 60 degree couloirs and hucking cliffs with their pups?! THAT would be another story. But a mellow tour with a dog can’t do anything other than make more yellow snow than you would’ve on your own.

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