Missoula Businesses Tell Dogs to ‘Take a Hike’

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Bainville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By ALLISON BYE

You could hear the bus before you saw it.

A cacophony of canines, the barking of a bus full of excited pups could be made out long before the lime green, half-size bus came into view.

A few minutes later the Buddy Bus rounds the side of the hill. It parks next to a fenced area, and its driver gets out. Walking to the back of the vehicle, he opens the fence gate and then the rear door of the bus. Dogs spill out the back — five labs, a border collie, a giant poodle and several others — all yipping and darting haphazardly through the tall grass. Once all the canines are out, the driver shuts the back door, hops through the gate himself, and then leads his pack farther up the hill and through another gate, and in a few minutes they are out of sight.

The bus is one of three owned by Missoula’s Alpine Canine, a business that is taking dog walking to new, ahem, heights.

A handful of businesses hope letting your dog way off the leash is a ticket to success.

A handful of businesses hope letting your dog way off the leash is a ticket tosuccess.

Alpine Canine and Quicks Paws are two local businesses that have come up with a unique way for dogs to get their daily dose of exercise and fun. Rather than walk them down the city streets, these organizations take customers’ dogs for hikes ranging from one to several hours in the areas surrounding Missoula.

Alpine Canine offers several diverse hiking groups to fit customers’ (or more precisely, their dogs’) needs. The Adventure Hikers groups consists mainly of larger dogs, typically between seven months and 10 years old, and the hike is around three hours long and offered five days a week. The Seniors and Squirts group runs twice a week is geared towards just what it says: small dogs, usually under 25 pounds, and older dogs. And more recently Alpine has decided to offer a new group, called Day Trippers. These hikes will typically be for larger dogs, but for those coming off of injuries or are not ready for the Adventure Hike yet.

“It’s kind of like preschool,” said Kate Crouch, manager of Alpine Canine.

The hikes are typically off-leash and take place on Alpine’s 72 acres of private land, all of which are surrounded by a four-foot fence. Trails crisscross the majority of the property, as well as a stream, and because it is privately owned, Alpine does not have a limit to the number of dogs it can take out at one time.

Quick Paws owner Charla Bitney acquired an outfitter’s permit from the Forest Service, allowing her business to take dogs in public recreation areas, such as Blue Mountain and Pattee Canyon. Quick Paws also rents a section of private land off of Big Flat Road. The permit allows the staff to take up to eight client dogs and one staff dog out at a time, and on the private land hiking groups usually consist of around 10 dogs.

Both Bitney and Crouch said their businesses work with a variety of clientele, from students to families to working professionals.

Mixing Personal and Professional

Both Bitney and Crouch got started in their businesses because of problems with their own dogs.

Bitney’s inspiration came from her boxer-cross Tannah (“Like Montana,” explained Bitney, who named her after the state she was homesick for) while she was living in New Mexico.

The dog was full of seemingly limitless energy. “I’d get up in the middle of the night, and he’d be running around the yard,” Bitney said. In an attempt to try and use up some of the energy, Bitney began taking Tannah on hikes. Soon she was doing it seven days a week, and not long after she began taking out other dogs as well, her boss’s, her friends’.

By 2004 Bitney had opened Quick Paws. The first couple years, she would take all the dogs out by herself, but now she has a full staff working alongside her and she mostly handles administrative duties. Quick Paws, in addition to hiking canines, also provides daycare, lodging, grooming and home care for all house pets.

Crouch entered the dog hiking scene because of her adopted husky. She found it difficult to give the dog enough exercise, she said. He would often jump the fence or run away, and even running with him didn’t seem to wear him out. Soon she began to take him on hikes. Even then, she said, he would be gone a majority of the time, doing his own thing, but by the end of the outing she found he was more manageable.

Crouch has now been in the dog hiking business for eight years, working five with Go Fetch’s Scott Timothy before he sold the Alpine Canine business to its current owner, Melissa Daigle.

Both Crouch and Bitney said the main benefits of such programs are socialization for the dogs and, of course, exercise.

“A really tired dog is a much better dog, especially little dogs. They are much easier to work with at home, especially if the owner wants to do more training,” Crouch said.

Having a dog in good shape can also be beneficial to the owner, she said, because they can feel more comfortable taking their dogs out to do other outdoor activities, like fishing or skiing. Owners can feel like their dog will be safe and know its own limits.

But the social aspect is just as important. Crouch recently adopted 2-year-old Tank, a shih tzu. She said before he had probably never left the house and the pads on his feet were very soft. But now “he has built so much confidence with strangers,” she said.

The hikes also allow for some canine training. Crouch applies what she calls “noninvasive corrections” to dogs’ behaviors. “Dogs need to know what their boundaries are, what’s inappropriate and what’s appropriate behavior,” she said. That way, she says, the are able to exhibit the “appropriate responses to different situations.”

And not only is the hiking beneficial for the canines, but the employees enjoy it as well.

“The hiking is just great because you’re getting paid to be outside,” said Megan Burgmuller, a member of the Quick Paws staff. Burgmuller, who has worked with Quick Paws for almost two years, is planning to apply for veterinary school and thought having a job where she worked with animals would be beneficial.

Barking Up Business

Bitney said Quick Paws usually sees around 100-150 dogs per week, some of which are repeat clients, and they currently have about 700 active clients in all. Alpine Canine has been featured on the “Dog About Town Northwest” website and in “Modern Dog” magazine.

In the end, dog hiking is all about building relationships, between dogs and other dogs, and between dogs and people. Rita Cerasoli perhaps sums it up best in her testimonial posted the Alpine Canine website:

“Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I dress Cowboy in one of his many bandannas and he instinctively knows that ‘Miss Kate’ will be coming to pick him up soon for his ‘fun day.’ He absolutely loves Kate, loves the hikes and seeing Cowboy happy makes me very happy, because he is the most important thing in my life.”