If you’re a hiker and a dog owner, you and your furry sidekick are likely destined to be great trail buddies. But, especially at first, this is a hiking companion who will need a lot of care and feeding. Remind yourself that this is what you signed up for, then consider the advice below as you begin to create a perfect trail dog.
- Pre-hike readiness: Consult with your vet, brush up on obedience training and trail etiquette, pick appropriate trails, and build up your dog’s stamina.
- The dog pack (the kind your pooch wears): Fit it right, watch the weight and load it evenly.
- Other gear considerations: Your trail partner might also benefit from one or two other essentials, from a roomier tent to a special first-aid kit.
- Food and water planning: This is especially important on backpacking trips when your dog needs more fuel and is likely to be the one carrying it.
- Beware trail hazards: Think about water safety, as well as concerns about heat, creatures, plants, and pathogens.
Preparing Your Pup for the Trail
For starters, puppies aren’t ready to carry a load, nor are their immune systems ready to take on the world. So it would help if you worked out exactly when your dog will be prepared.
Visit the Vet: Ask your veterinarian some critical questions before you and your dog head into the wilds:
- Is your dog physically ready? It would help if you waited until a young dog’s bones were fully developed. Depending on the size and other factors, that might be at a year, plus or minus several months.
- Does your dog need any specific vaccinations or preventative medicines? In the city, you might not worry about things like your dog drinking water in a lake or pond that an infected animal has contaminated with Leptospirosis or giardia. Ask the vet about preventative measures for outdoor destinations.
- Is your dog’s immune system ready? Factoring in the rate of natural immunity development and your dog’s vaccine schedule, your vet can advise you about the safe age for you two to hit the trail.
Know Your Trail Regulations: Always check on the regulations for the areas where you’ll be hiking or backpacking. Most U.S. national parks, for example, do not allow even a leashed dog to share the trail. Many national forests, as well as state and local parks, do allow dogs on their trail systems, though rules vary. Leashes are mandatory almost everywhere.
Bone Up on Obedience Training and Trail Etiquette: You must always maintain control of your dog. Step off the trail to yield the right way to hikers, horses, and bikes. And having your dog on a leash isn’t enough. You must also keep your dog calm as other people and pups pass by.
Leave No Trace: Always pack out filled poop bags on day hikes. It’s also harmful to leave them by the trail for later pickup. If you’re worried about a breach, double-bag on the course, then remove any intact outer bags after you get home.
On backpacking trips, humans and canines have the same Leave No Trace rule: Bury pet waste in a 6- to the 8-inch hole at least 200 feet away from trails, camps, and water sources. Enforcing the 200-foot rule for urination breaks isn’t practical, but be prepared to interrupt things and move away if your dog begins to pee in or next to a water source.
Start a Trail-Training Regimen: Ease into the routine of hiking. Start with an hour or so of hikes, then monitor the energy level afterward. If your dog is still super active, increase the time for the next training hike. Your goal is to work up to the amount of trail time you plan to do on future day hikes or backpacking trips. This slow approach also helps toughen up citified paws.
The All-Important Dog Pack
It’s not the only gear your hiking buddy needs, but it truly separates going on a walk from going on a hike. And while your inner backpacker can’t help but fuss over features and design, getting the fit right and getting your dog accustomed to the pack are your most important tasks. One feature worth drooling over is a top handle to keep your dog close during trail encounters and creek crossings.
How to Fit a Pack
Measure the circumference of your dog’s chest around the widest part of the rib cage. Most packs come in a range of sizes that will correspond to this measurement. Adjust all straps to snug the pack’s fit. Don’t pull too tight, though: Your dog needs to breathe. But you also don’t want a too-loose bag that can slip off or chafe.
For pack training, start by having your dog wear it empty around the house, then on walks. As soon as wearing the pack becomes routine, load in a few pounds (evenly on each side). Gradually increase pack weight on each walk until you reach your target weight. A maximum of 25 percent of body weight is a rough guideline, but factors like age, size, and strength will alter that up or down. Check with your vet.
The Rest of Your Dog Gear
A vet won’t be handy when you’re on the trail, so a doggie first-aid kit and the knowledge to use it are essential. Organizations like the Red Cross also are a resource for dog owners, providing checklists and selling first-aid kits and training materials.
Be sure to add particular medicines your vet has given you to your kit. Another handy addition is old, clean wool socks that can be taped on as “bootie bandages” in a pinch.
Some pet owners also pack Pedialyte in case their dog gets diarrhea. Don’t do this without getting your vet’s permission and dosing guidelines.
Your Sleep System
This starts with the size of your tent—now “one person larger” to accommodate your dog. A piece of closed-cell foam and a crib-size (down) comforter make an excellent backcountry doggie bed. Plan to do several backyard sleepouts, too, so your dog will be comfortable with whatever sleep system you choose before hitting the trail.
A lot of your dog’s usual gear can come along. You’ll also need to consider some additional items for the Backcountry:
- Water container: Hydration for your dog is best handled by freshwater carried by you. Some owners train dogs to drink as they pour from a bottle. A lightweight, collapsible dish also works.
- Booties: They offer protection from sharp rocks, thorns, and snow. It’s not uncommon for a dog to lose a bootie. So if you choose booties rather than simply toughening up paws on training hikes, you need to pack spares. And you’ll still need to allow time for your dog to get used to wearing booties.
- Dog towel: You need one dedicated “hiker towel” to wipe off muddy paws before your dog joins you inside the tent. Bring an extra towel to dry fur if your dog jumps in a lake or is soaked in a downpour.
- Nail clippers and file: Dog paws can wreak havoc on tent fabric, so keeping nails neat and trimmed is essential.
- Safety light: This seemingly urban-area accessory is a great way to help you keep tabs on your dog after sunset and during nighttime potty breaks.
- Dog coat: Bring one if your dog lacks thick fur and temps will be low.
- Cooling collar: All dogs struggle to dissipate heat, so this soak-and-wrap accessory is worth every added ounce when the temps start to climb.
Food and Water Planning
Being on the trail all day requires you to provide more food and water than your dog typically consumes.
Larger dogs might drink 0.5 to 1.0 ounces of water per pound daily. Dogs 20 pounds lighter will be closer to 1.5 ounces per pound daily. These are general guidelines, so you must be watchful and offer Water often, especially on hot days. If the nose is dry, then you’re under-hydrating your dog.
Any hike you choose will require more food for your dog, with factors like being on a lengthy or steep trail necessitating greater caloric intake—just as is true for humans when they hike. If your dog tends to wander far off rather than stay close to you, then up the calorie count even more. Your dog’s veterinarian is your best resource for specific food recommendations—especially if you plan a multi-day trip or a thru-hike.
Tip: If you’re thirsty, hungry, or tired, then the chances are that your dog is, too. Take a trail break to chow down, drink up and catch your breath together.
Trail Hazards for Dogs
Your puppy is susceptible to most of the same dangers you are. More concerning, though, is that your dog won’t recognize many of them nor be able to explain to you when something is going wrong. So be extra vigilant of the following:
- Overdoing it: Watch how quickly your dog’s breathing and heart rate take to normalize during breaks. If it seems excessive, take more breaks or shorten your day on the trail. Limping is another sign that you need to stop for the day.
- Wildlife: Your leash is your best defense against big carnivores and prickly herbivores. Even though Lyme disease doesn’t show symptoms in many dogs, ticks are also a concern, so check your dog closely and remove any hitchhikers after the hike.
- Wild plants: Halting chewing immediately is your best defense against poison or tainted plants and digestive system problems. Watch out for nettles, poison oak, ivy, and sumac, which will cause discomfort for you and your dog.
- Thorns and burrs are irritating, but “foxtails” are more serious. Found on various grasses in spring and summer, these barbed seedpods can snag on fur and end up between toes and in more sensitive areas like nasal passages, ears, eyes, and genitals.
- Avoid areas with grasses that have foxtails, and remove them with tweezers right away. Excessive sneezing, head shaking, eye discharge, or an abscess are signs of cutting things short because foxtails can work their way into a vital organ and be fatal.
- Heat stroke: Dogs can only pant and sweat through their pads to cool off. Be conservative—rest and drink often, and pull out the cooling collar if your friend keeps lying down in shady spots.
- Waterborne pathogens: Dogs are susceptible to the same waterborne pathogens as humans. Read How to Treat Water in the Backcountry for a list of those. Your safest choice is to treat Water for both you and your dog.
- Water safety: If your dog can’t swim, pack a dog PFD. Don’t let even a good swimmer try to cross a whitewater section of a creek: Lift and carry your dog instead. And be wary of turning a swimmer loose in a lake. In cool temps, the wet fur can chill your dog. Even if the weather is temperate, you’ll have a significant toweling-off job before bedtime.
The health benefits of dog walking to you and your dog
Dog owners enjoy numerous health and social benefits by walking their dogs a few times a week. Benefits include improved cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure, stronger muscles and bones (built up by walking regularly), and decreased stress.
A regular walk is vitally essential for your pet’s health too. Obesity in pets is associated with several medical complaints, including osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and insulin resistance.
Most dogs need to be walked at least once daily, though some dogs, particularly very active dogs, may require more. The breed of dog you have and its fitness and age will also determine how long and vigorous your walk should be.
A walk can make a dog very happy. They love to check out the sights and smells and look forward to spending time with you. A dog that doesn’t receive sufficient exercise can quickly become bored or destructive.
Health benefits of pet ownership
Research studies from around the world have found that pets may offer health benefits to their owners, including:
- Other people see people who walk their dogs as friendly and approachable.
- A study of patients waiting for dentist surgeries found that watching fish swim around in an aquarium reduces stress as hypnosis.
- Stroking and petting a pet can reduce the physiological indicators of stress, including high blood pressure.
- The non-judgemental companionship and unconditional love offered by pets have considerable mental health benefits for owners, including increased self-esteem.
Community health benefits of dog walking and pet ownership
Research undertaken by the University of Western Australia has found that pet ownership can also benefit the whole community. The researchers found that pet owners, in particular dog owners, were more likely to:
- acknowledge and greet other people in the street
- exchange favors with neighbors
- meet others in their neighborhood.
Dog walking – choose your dog carefully.
If you’re not very active, owning a dog could give you an excellent reason to walk regularly. But before you rush out and buy a dog, plan your purchase. Make sure you choose a breed that’s appropriate to your lifestyle. For example, don’t buy a large active dog if you live in a small apartment or have limited mobility.
Dog walking – your responsibilities
As a dog owner, you must supervise your dog at all times and ensure the dog is kept within calling distance and under control. Providing your pet with obedience training and socialization skills is necessary to become a well-mannered and socially well-adjusted dog.
Prepare yourself for dog walking.
Prepare for walking your dog by:
- stretching before you start – in particular, extend the front and back of your legs, your back, and your arms
- Ensure your equipment (including a dog leash and walking shoes) is suitable and will not cause injury.
- Protecting yourself and your dog from excessive heat and sunburn – make sure you both drink plenty of water before, during, and after your walk, walk during the more excellent parts of the day when the weather is hot and protect yourself from the sun with a hat, long clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Dog walking tips
When you walk your dog:
- Aim for 30-minute walks five times per week.
- Keep your dog on its leash in public areas unless it’s an ‘off leash’ zone. Contact your local council about areas where dogs can be exercised off-leash.
- Supervise your dog around young children.
- Take a plastic bag or scoop to clean up your dog’s poo.
- Make sure your dog is correctly identified.
- Make sure your dog is desexed.
- Avoid walking in extreme heat.
- Take fresh water for you and your dog to drink.
Environmental considerations when dog walking
Responsible dog owners respect the environment and the rights of other people. Some things to consider include:
- Most national and state parks and reserves do not allow domestic animals, including dogs (except for guide dogs).
- State forests permit dogs, but only if they are controlled.
- Some local parks and beaches allow dogs to be off the lead – check with your local Council to see where and at what times this is allowed.
- As a dog owner, you are fully and legally responsible for any harm or damage to people, property, or wildlife caused by your dog.
Things to remember
- Always keep your dog under control, and carry plastic bags or scoops so that you can clean up after it.
- With stretches and the right equipment, prepare for dog walking as you would for any exercise.
- Always supervise dogs around young children.