Now that spring has sprung, many of us have itchy feet to be outside hiking and enjoying the great outdoors. And that goes for our four-legged best friends, too. Hiking safely and responsibly with your dog is a little more involved than just hopping out of the car and setting loose on a trail. This advice will get you ready to tackle the trail with your dog, and teach you how to be socially and environmentally conscious while hiking.
Is your dog ready for hiking?
There are a few things to consider before you head out on the trail with your dog which will guarantee a safe, joyful trek.
1. How strenuous is the hike? Your dog's age, stature, and fitness level are all factors that will determine if he or she can go on a trail with you, or what type of trail you select. Older dogs get achy joints and tire out faster than dogs in their prime. Meanwhile a tough hike may hinder proper development in puppies if there is too much jumping or scrambling before their joints and bones are fully formed. Shorter dogs may have a more difficult time on trails, since they have to expend more energy and may not be able to scramble over rocks as easily. And even if your dog seems like the right age and build, consider the dog's fitness level. Make the length of the trail roughly equal to the length of your daily walks. If you only walk around the block a few times a day, then a 5-mile hike is probably too much for your pooch, and you may be carrying him for the last half of the trip. If your pooch has more daily exercise and endurance, then you can safely choose a longer trail. Finally, consider the weather. If you're hiking in winter conditions, can your short-haired pointer handle the chill? Or if you're hiking in summer, can your thick-coated Labrador deal with the heat?
2. Is your dog socialized and non-reactive? You'll likely be meeting other people, dogs, and cyclists on trails, and possibly even horses. Often the trails will be narrow when passing others, making it even more difficult if your dog is nervous, fearful, leash reactive, or aggressive toward other humans or animals. If this is the case, then hiking on busy public trails is not an ideal activity for your dog. Seek out quieter, less popular trails and have a few training strategies in place to help your dog pass strangers and other triggers.
3. Is your dog up to date on vaccines, flea and tick prevention, and heartworm prevention? You never know what you'll run into on the trail, so make sure that your dog has current rabies vaccinations and any other appropriate vaccinations. Also flea, tick and heartworm medication is a must for heading out on trails.
4. Is your dog licensed and microchipped? Having a current license is necessary in case there are any incidences on the trail. And having your dog microchipped is a great way to ensure that should anything go wrong and Fido gets lost, there's a way to get him home to you even if he loses his collar and ID tags.
Smart rules and safety guidelines to follow:
Like it or not, you're representing all dog owners when you're hiking with your dog. You want to be on your best behavior not only to keep you and your dog safe and happy, but also to help ensure the trails you enjoy stay open to dogs. Just a handful of bad episodes between dogs and other hikers, or one too many evacuation calls for dogs, could mean that dogs will be banned from the trails. So do you and your dog a favor by following these guidelines.
1. Keep control of your dog at all times. This means your dog should stay on a 6-foot leash. Even on off-leash trails, unless your dog has perfect recall in any situation (and let's admit it, the vast majority of household dogs don't, especially around so much stimulation) then you want to keep your dog on a leash. This will prevent a plethora of potential problems, from chasing wildlife to having a run-in with another dog to charging up to approaching hikers. A simple nylon or leather leash is best; no flex-leads as these can cause as many problems as they prevent. Still not convinced you want to keep your dog on a leash? Just consider the possibility of your dog encountering a snake before you can notice or get there to pull your dog away. Or perhaps your dog goes bounding off trail for a moment and, unbeknownst to you, has bounded right through poison ivy, oak or sumac. All that itch-inducing oil on his coat will now be all over you (and your car when you travel home).
2. Consider other hikers. It may be a bummer, but it's a fact: not everyone likes dogs. Some people are allergic, some are fearful, some just plain old don't like them, and some people don't agree that dogs should be allowed on hiking trails. So to keep everyone as happy as possible and prevent unpleasant encounters or complaints, act as if every oncoming hiker doesn't like dogs until they prove otherwise. Make sure your dog is on-leash as hikers approach, and don't allow your dog to go up and greet them unless invited. Give dog-less hikers the right of way, and have your dog sit politely next to you (or at least stand out of the way) while they pass.
3. Don’t bother wildlife or plant life. It's really easy to follow this guideline — you just have to keep your dog on leash and on the trail. It's so easy for an off-leash dog to get overly excited and chase after everything from squirrels and birds to deer and coyotes. But remember you're in the animals' home, and it's best to be a respectful guest and not send them into a panic. Also, staying on trail means you won't harm fragile, and possibly threatened or endangered plant life. You'll also help prevent erosion which will keep the trail open to hiking longer.
4. Keep a 1:1 human-to-dog ratio. Handling two dogs by yourself can quickly become overwhelming if you come across more dogs on the trail, or if one dog becomes tired or injured. One dog per person helps you maintain control over situations and makes it easier on everyone during the trek. It's also a smart idea to limit the number of dogs on the trail to two or three in total. More dogs than this can be intimidating to other hikers, as well as adds undue environmental stress to the area.
5. Do not allow your dog to drink from areas of standing water. Standing water typically harbors parasites and bacteria that can make your dog sick, even fatally so. Be sure you bring enough fresh water to keep your dog hydrated so you can avoid any ponds, marshes or puddles that make your dog ill.
6. Take breaks for water and snacks. And plenty of them. Dehydration and overheating are common problems for dogs on hiking trails. Be sure to continuously hydrate your dog (and yourself!) every half hour or so. If your dog is panting excessively or slowing down, find a shady spot to rest until he or she recovers. Bring snacks and treats for your dog and dole them out over the course of the hike. Just like you, your dog needs a little fuel every so often along the trail to keep the energy level up and finish the hike with flying colors.
7. Leave no trace. Just as you'd apply the rule to yourself by packing out all trash and leaving nothing but footprints, so too with your dog. Pack out all dog waste and avoid leaving signs that he was on the trail.
Essentials to pack:
There are a few things that are absolute must-have items for any trail, and a few things that are essentials for certain trails or just great to bring if you have them. We'll address both here.
Collar with ID tag and license
Doggy poop bags
Water and a collapsible water bowl, or a water bottle with dispenser like a Gulpy
Treats and food: If the hike is long enough that you’ll want a snack, then your dog will need one too
Tick repellant and/or tick key
First aid kit: Basic components should include tweezers, cleansers and disinfectants, canine eyewash, stop-bleeding powder, bandages, bandage scissors and tape. There are other smart items to have in a canine first aid kit, many items of which you'll find in pre-assembled kits from pet supply stores or online pet product websites.
Dog backpack: If your dog is large enough to carry a pack, then perhaps he can carry his own water and snacks. Just remember to never fill the pack beyond 20-25 percent of your dog's weight, and less if your dog is not conditioned to carrying a pack.
Dog booties: A dog's paws can get scratched and cut on rocks, rough terrain or packed snow, so protecting them on long hikes is important.
Pack-a-poo waste carrier: If you want to avoid any unpleasant smells as you pack out your dog poop bags, this is a must-have item.
Reflective collar or vest: It's a great idea to have reflective gear if you're hiking in the afternoons or overnight. Not only will it help you find your dog should you get separated, but it's especially smart if you're in an area where hunting is allowed.
Finding a trail:
The last part of getting ready for a hike is finding the best trail. There are several websites that can help narrow down your search, finding trails that allow dogs in the area where you want to hike. BringFido.com is a wonderful site for finding dog-friendly hiking (and everything else) worldwide. There are also location-specific resources; for example, DogTrekker is an excellent site for Californians. Hike With Your Dog is another good resource to check out.
If you're searching for trails on websites that are not dog-specific, be sure to look for the trails that allow dogs. Also, pay attention to leash regulations. Many, if not most trails allow dogs only if they are on-leash. There are also plenty of great books that list dog-friendly trails, such as the "60 Hikes Within 60 Miles" series. Check out your local outdoor gear supply store for books on dog-friendly trails in your area.
Now you're ready to head out into the great outdoors with your dog!
Happy dogs, happy hike. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)