Canine Hiking Basics

Roxanne Hawn

Tips for Hiking with your Dog

Dogs of many shapes and sizes make good hiking partners. On day hikes around my home in the Rocky Mountains, I see dogs you’d expect, including retrievers, herding dogs, and sturdy mixed breed dogs. I also see small, even tiny, dogs out enjoying the trails. The Miniature Dachshund who powers up steep trails with his short, muscular legs and the Yorkshire Terrier who runs with a large group of 20-something men are two of my favorites.

It isn’t the size or shape of the dog that matters as much as the preparations you make to keep your dog happy and safe on the trails.

Conditioning

Unless your dog is already super fit, start with regular neighborhood walks, building toward greater distances and time. Once your dog can handle 60- to 90-minute daily walks on typical ground, begin your transition to rougher terrain. Initially, you’re trading challenge for time, so keep your first hikes relatively short – maybe 30 minutes. You want to build strength and stamina, including toughening up your dog’s footpads.

If 30 minutes goes well, then increase time and distance 15 minutes or a quarter of a mile each outing. Just remember to keep things shorter if you’re crossing steeper terrain.

Watch your dog for signs of fatigue or paw tenderness. Don’t rely, however, on your dog to tell you if you’ve gone far enough. Dogs often find hiking new areas so fun that they’ll continue hiking longer than is prudent. This is one reason I prefer out-and-back routes, rather than trails that loop. It allows me to make better decisions for my dog on any given day.

Trail Training

Always know and follow trail rules. Some places require dogs be leashed at all times. Some – including many national park trails – don’t allow dogs at all.

If you are going to allow your dog off leash on hikes, make sure you have trained both a solid “leave it” and a reliable recall. These things may protect your dog from eating things she finds along the way, preying on small game, falling victim to large predators, and facing other trail hazards.

I’m also a big fan of teaching dogs to yield the trail. I use the cue “off trail,” which signals my dogs to step off the trail, sit, and wait for people, dogs, bikers, and horses to pass.

Water

I carry as much water for my dog as for myself, even on routine two-hour hikes. I also leave a large beverage cooler with more water and ice in my car so we have something fresh and cold to drink when we get back to the trailhead.

Under normal conditions, dogs typically drink about 1 ounce of water per pound per day. During exertion in both hot and cold weather, those needs increase.

Typically, if my dog won’t accept water, even if I think she needs it, I pour it over her head or splash it on her armpits to provide a little bit of cooling on hot days.

Basic Equipment

Use your dog’s collar for tags only, and hook the leash to a good harness instead.

If you’re taking serious treks or hiking on tough terrain (especially “slick rock” areas of places in Utah and elsewhere), train your dog to wear protective booties. You do not want to be in a situation where you have to carry your dog long distances for help, due to a paw injury.

Most dogs conditioned to wear packs can carry about 25 percent of their body weight, including their own food and water. Some dogs, though, depending on breed and build, will be more comfortable carrying just 10-15 percent of their body weight.

Early on, my dogs wore inexpensive saddlebag-style packs I bought at a typical pet supply store. As our hikes became more elaborate, I switched to something nicer. Ruffwear  makes good canine packs, including some with built-in hydration systems.

Personally, I’m a fan of a harness and pack combination from Canine Equipment called the Ultimate Trail Pack. I like that the panniers unsnap, so the dog can wear just the harness if you prefer. The suitcase-like handle also comes in handy if your dog needs a boost.

If you’re hiking in the heat, especially with a dark-coated dog, consider getting a so-called “swamp cooler” vest that provides evaporative cooling.

Lost Dogs

For safety’s sake, I recommend the following things, which might help you find your dog if he goes missing on a hike:

  • Recent photo of your dog in your pack
  • Collar with up-to-date ID tags
  • Microchip
  • Dog whistle (sound carries farther than your voice)
  • LED strobe light attached to your dog’s collar or harness
  • GPS beacon (Consumer Reports tested several models.)

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