Meet Ralph, a recent compleatist of the Grahams — the 219 mountains in Scotland between 2000 and 2500 feet high, with at least 150 metres of descent on all sides.
When Ralph completed his last of the 219 mountains on the 'Grahams' list in July, he celebrated with a large bowl of summit sausages. Ralph is socially anxious and a big softie who is scared of his own shadow and dislikes the hustle and bustle of modern life. Ralph is a six-year-old Border Collie — the first dog known to have completed the round.
"His large bowl of celebratory summit sausages are definitely only for special occasions," Ralph's owner Anne Butler said.
Despite his very limited range of facial expressions, Ralph is always happy on the hill.
Keen hillbagger and Full House compleatist Anne plucked Ralph from a working farm near Dunkeld in 2016. He is a nervous dog with a long list of anxiety-inducing dislikes: people, other dogs, cars, bikes, flashing lights, vacuum cleaners, traffic cones and flags. "The list of things that stress him is endless!" Anne said. "However, put Ralph on a hill and he comes to life: he is relaxed, happy and confident with boundless energy for the day ahead."
Ralph completed his first big hill round in 2020, ticking off all 140 Donalds — an ideal round for teaching a young dog how to become competent and confident in the hills, with their quiet, short and easy walks on good paths. Over time, Anne and Ralph built up to long cross-country slogs over "typically heinous" Galloway terrain. "We would rarely meet another person on our walks, so the Donalds allowed us time to bond and learn to trust and listen to each other," she said.
When looking for his next challenge, Anne felt that the relative unpopularity of the Grahams compared to the Corbetts or the Munros would make them an ideal choice for a dog with social anxiety.
Ralph climbed his first Graham on a snowy Carn na h-Easgainn at Moy in March 2017. Two summits stood out as being particularly challenging on four paws, and for Anne, too.
"Being a very nervous scrambler, I knew I would not have the skills needed to get Ralph to the true summit of Stac Pollaidh, but luckily our friend Heather did and - equipped with a doggie climbing harness, a rope and a couple of slings - Ralph was assisted up and down the bad step to the summit," she said.
Trollaval in the centre of the Rum Cuillin was another technically difficult summit to reach on four legs, but with the help of a harness, lead and friend Andy's route finding skills, Ralph made it up and down safely during the Cuillin traverse.
Despite his "very limited range of facial expressions", Ralph is always happy on the hill, Anne said. "He never needs any persuasion to keep going, however long the walk is."
Ralph approaches every day on the hill with gusto, and embraces any obstacle in his way. He falls into bogs between grassy tussocks, charges through bracken that dwarfs him and navigates his way across miles of peat hags. Like many dogs, he has a penchant for sticks — very big sticks. "He particularly enjoys carrying discarded fence posts across the hills, the bigger the better," Anne said.
He has only one nemesis in the hills: wind turbines. "A still one makes him anxious," Anne said, "but as soon as they move, Ralph's anxiety will take over and he sits on my feet for a reassuring cuddle, refusing to move until he is safely back on his lead."
Once at the summit, Ralph's enthusiasm and good behaviour is rewarded with dog food or occasionally a special treat, but only after he has "helped" Anne to eat her sandwiches first.
The pair's ascent of Suilven in the autumn of 2020 was a particularly memorable outing for Anne. "We were back on the hills after the lockdowns and there was a rare weather window," she said. "Ralph made light work of the scramble to the summit and his mood appeared to mirror mine — we took time to stop and take it all in and we both seemed to sense that life had clicked back into place for us again."
It has been a joy to watch a clumsy, uncoordinated puppy develop into such a confident and self-assured hill dog and find his true happy place.
At the end of 2021, Anne realised that Ralph was nearing completion of the Grahams. Her previous research for the Munro Society's 'Canine Completers' project had shown that no other dog was known to have completed a Graham round, but with some of the remotest hills in Scotland still to climb - An Cruachan, Ben Armine, Sabhal Beag and Meall a' Chaorainn - Ralph had his work cut out.
Ben Armine and An Cruachan would each involve almost 50km of biking and hiking and Anne didn't want to risk damaging Ralph's joints by making him run alongside the bike, or force him to camp over multiple days. The solution was to invest in an e-bike and dog trailer for him to ride in. "He absolutely hates it and hides when it is time to get in it again for the ride back to the car!" she said.
Watching Ralph overcome his anxiety and pet hates has made Anne a very proud owner. "It has been a joy to watch a clumsy, uncoordinated puppy develop into such a confident and self-assured hill dog and find his true happy place," she said.
Anne's passion for hillwalking began by chance in 1997, after finding a copy of the SMC Munros book in a shop while on holiday in Scotland. She chose Ben Lomond as her first Munro. "It was not particularly enjoyable at the time, but it gave me a massive sense of achievement and that one walk changed the direction my life was to take," she said.
She completed her Full House (all Munros, Munro Tops, Corbetts, Grahams, Donalds and Furths) in 2018, accompanied on many outings by a canine companion at her side (or thereabouts).
Ralph is the third dog in a dynasty of canine peak-baggers in Anne's family. Meg was a Dartmoor-bred Border Collie who joined Anne and her husband in 1995. "She had great stamina and made the transition from moorland to hillwalking very easily," Anne said. "She accompanied us up our first Munro and was there when I completed on Sgurr Eilde Mor 7 years later. Meg was calm and content, equally at home following my horse across the moors or climbing hills." Meg summited 198 Munros during their holidays in Scotland.
After Meg died, Molly - a boisterous Border Collie with endless energy - joined the pack in 2007. The family moved up to Scotland in 2008, enabling Molly to build on Meg's hillwalking legacy. She climbed her first mountain, Beinn an Lochain, a Corbett above the Rest and Be Thankful, shortly after the move.
"Molly was a natural hill dog and took everything in her stride," Anne said. "We were airlifted off Liathach in a rescue helicopter when the hill was on fire, we kayaked up Loch Quoich to climb the remote Corbett Ben Aden, she completed the Rum Cuillin traverse, climbed the A'Chir ridge on Arran (including two abseils) and climbed to the summit of The Cobbler." In 2012, Molly became only the second dog to complete the Corbetts and in her nine years climbed 1227 Munros, 312 Corbetts and 131 Grahams.
Due to their heritage as a working breed, Border Collies and shepherd dogs are renowned for their trainability, agility and capacity for rigorous exercise, making them ideal hill companions.
Anne introduced hillwalking gradually to each of her dogs at a young age, and taught them vital hill skills including recall and ignoring wildlife and livestock.
Anne has been accompanied on 95% of her hill walks by her dogs, for the majority of the time without other human company. "We have quickly learned to trust each other and we rely on each other through the good and the bad times," she said. She keeps a blog about her and the dogs' adventures, called Two Feet Four Paws.
While an obvious next step, a Munro round for Ralph - completed by only 15 dogs to date - is out of the question. "I would never have the confidence to take Ralph onto the Cuillin Munros, just watching him on that sort of exposed terrain would make me a nervous wreck," Anne said. "However, he is keen to finish off his Corbett round and we will be turning our attention to that over the next few years."
Not content with just one round, Anne is hoping to complete her second Full House next year. For Anne, hillwalking without a dog is an "empty" experience and doesn't live up to walking with a furry friend.
Maybe we can all learn to be more dog.
"When I am walking with the dogs I never feel alone — admittedly they aren't great conversationalists and they may not appreciate the views in the same way, but simply looking at it from a dog's perspective can alter my perception on the challenges ahead," she said.
"When times get tough, they pick themselves up, shake out the stress and get going again. The sights and smells of the hills invigorate them and they very much live in the moment and don't worry about what has gone before and what lies ahead. Maybe we can all learn to be more dog."
Top tips from Anne on hillwalking with your dog(s):
"Sharing a day on the hill with our dogs can be a rewarding experience, but all dog owners must remember that they are responsible for their dog's safety and wellbeing and make sure that they respect the environment and other people on the hill.
As an owner, you cannot just take a dog into the hills and expect it to be able to walk for miles and know how to behave in unfamiliar terrain. Don't become fixated on taking dogs up Munros, they should be introduced gradually to the hills, taught how to behave appropriately and given time to become a trusted hill dog.
With sufficient preparation, almost any breed of dog can be trained to become a trustworthy companion on the hills.
Dogs need time to build up their fitness and they are blessed with a natural sense of balance and will be able to negotiate steep ground with ease. However, they will need to learn how to do this safely and owners should guide the dog slowly across rough terrain using a harness and lead and soon it will become second nature to them.
I have put together a guide on preparing a dog for the hills on the Mountaineering Scotland website. There is lots of useful advice on training, equipment, health, managing the weather, how to prevent dogs becoming lost and what to do if they become separated from their owner."
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