It's a dog's life

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— Imagine what it might be like to be a dog. You wake up in the morning to watch your master prepare for work, get let out for about five minutes to do your business and then it's housebound the rest of the day.

For some lucky dogs, they may have a fenced yard to live in, but even that would be a confining circumstance.

Then, at the end of the day after hours of lying around your owner comes home and all you want them to do is to take you out. Not just on a measly little walk around the block. But out-out running hard and filling your lungs with air.

But in Steamboat Springs, dogs are not allowed off a leash at anytime. In fact, in all the towns in Routt County and throughout most of the unincorporated parts of the county, dogs have to be on a leash at all times or face an animal control officer and a fine to the pet owner.

But keeping a dog on a leash all the time can make it difficult for the animal to get the proper exercise they need, local veterinarian Mike Gotchey said.

"Dogs like to run and need to run," he said.

Without letting a dog run unconstrained by a leash, it's difficult for the animal to consistently use their lungs to their full capacity, which is important for a dog's health, Gotchey said.

But there is one bastion of freedom left in the county for dogs to run without a leash. That's the national forest.

"Dogs are welcomed in the forest," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said. "But they need to be under control at all times."

That means voice control. A pet owner must be able to summon their dog at anytime. Also, the dogs must generally stay on the trail and not be a nuisance to other hikers and bikers.

Also, the dogs can't chase wildlife.

"That's got to be a concern," said Dan McIntyre, trails manager for the Routt National Forest. "There is just so much wildlife out there."

Gotchey also pointed out that when animals take off after wildlife, or cattle in agricultural areas, there is a good chance that they won't come back.

So with those responsibilities in mind, pet owners should go out and let Fido run. But there is one more hitch. Where should you go?

Right now, McIntyre said the best place to go would be the Mad Creek Trail Head and the Red Dirt trail area. Both are about five or six miles up Elk River Road, off the right-hand side of the road.

"The loop is open right now," McIntyre said. "You might see some (snow) drifts up there, but it's pretty clear."

The loop is the trail that starts at the Mad Creek Trail Head which is actually called Swamp Park trail, not Mad Creek trail and connects to the Red Dirt trail and back down to the road.

Hikers and dogs also can stay on Swamp Park trail, head into a connecting chain of meadows east of Red Dirt and then make it into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

"You might see some snow through there, but it should be open to the wilderness boundary," McIntyre said.

Another route that will take you into the same vicinity is the Hot Springs trail, which starts right at the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. That trail connects to the Mad Creek Road and then to Swamp Park trail.

"There are a lot of bikers on that trail," McIntyre warns.

Another close trail to let your dog to stretch his legs on is the Uranium Mine trail, which starts near the parking lot for Fish Creek Falls.

"That one is pretty open right now," McIntyre said.

At Fish Creek Falls, dogs must be leashed at least to the first bridge at the base of the falls. From there, dog owners should use their best leash discretion by considering the number of tourists on the trail, Pipher said.

"We also encourage people to pick up after their dogs in high-use areas like Fish Creek Falls," she said.

Right now, the ground at Fish Creek is covered with dog do-do, she said.

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