One of the greatest perks of having a dog (in my opinion) is having an eager trail buddy. Most dogs love to hike, sniff, and explore with their person - so hiking is naturally a perfect fit! Before you head out on the trail, it’s important to keep a few things in mind to ensure a safe and enjoyable outing. In no particular order, here are our top five tips for hiking with your pup.
1. Be prepared
Just like you prepare yourself with water, snacks, layers, and a map for a hike, it’s important that you have what you need for your pup. At a minimum, you’ll need a flat collar on your dog with ID tags attached, a harness if your dog is prone to pulling, a leash, water and a collapsible water bowl, poop bags, and treats. Back at the car, I always keep extra water and a couple of old towels on hand in case I need to wipe my pup down. Always check your dog’s coat, paw pads, and around the armpits, eyes, ears, and groin after a hike for burrs, seeds, ticks, or other injuries.
First aid and other health considerations: Your dog should be current on a flea/tick preventive and vaccinations including rabies (and, in some areas, leptospirosis - consult your vet).
For first aid on a short outing, you’ll want (at a minimum) some gauze and a bandage in case of injury to dress a wound until you can get to a vet. You can also use gauze to make an emergency muzzle, as dogs are likely to bite if they are in pain.
For longer hikes, camping, backpacking, or to keep in the car, you’ll want a more comprehensive first aid kit. Check out this list to help you pack your kit - I would also suggest adding a pair of fine point tweezers to remove a tick if needed. Keep the number of your closest emergency vet stored in your phone, and to take a pet first aid and CPR course if you plan to spend much time outdoors adventuring with your pup.
Finally, part of being prepared is understanding the dog guidelines in the area you plan to hike. Check that dogs are allowed, and if dogs are required to be on leash, keep your dog on a leash - it’s that simple. And of course, always pick up your dog’s poop and pack it out.
2. Be aware of your surroundings
During our group off-leash trail hikes, we spend the majority of our time scanning our surroundings. Our job is to spot other trail users, possible hazards, or anything that might scare or distract our dogs BEFORE our dogs do - that way, we can manage the situation appropriately and keep everyone safe. Some of the things you’ll want to watch for are physical hazards like broken glass or barb wire fencing, changes in the landscape like a cliff, road crossing, or body of water, animals like squirrels, deer, cattle, horses, rattlesnakes, or wasps, or gross things like an animal carcass or a stagnant puddle. Watch for other trail users including bikes, small children, vehicles, or other dogs. It’s your job as a responsible dog owner to keep both your dog and others safe, and you can do that by being aware and proactively avoiding trouble.
3. Keep your dog close and respect others
I know - there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching your dog run free. And from time to time, if the environment is safe, your dog has excellent recall, and the trail has good visibility and permits off leash dogs, it’s okay to let your dog take a big run and get their ya-yas out. But most of the time, you’ll want to keep your dog close to you, within your line of sight and under voice control. Dogs can get disoriented, just like us, and if they are constantly running up ahead, they’re more likely to run into a hazard or get turned around and not be able to find their way back to us. If your dog is close, you can quickly and easily leash them up or get a hold of their long line when other trail users are passing. Not only is it polite and shows how well trained your dog is, it will set a good example for other dog owners and help protect our access to off-leash trails. If your dog doesn’t have reliable recall, keep them on leash until they do. Which brings us to #4...
4. Practice and reward recall - forever
A reliable recall is the single most important skill you can teach your dog if you’re planning to hike with them off leash. We have a blog article devoted to the rules of recall - please read that if you’re looking to learn about the foundations of teaching recall, or better yet - consult with a qualified trainer. Once your dog has a reliable recall, it’s important to continue to practice and reinforce recall throughout their life! Dogs get rusty at skills they don’t practice, just like us, and if we stop rewarding them entirely, the behavior will eventually fall apart. Bring tasty food rewards on your hike and practice easy recalls when your dog is not distracted by other dogs or interesting smells. If your dog successfully recalls, be generous with rewards and praise and then release them to continue exploring! If your dog is not listening, leash them up and make a mental note to take a few steps back in your training.
5. Know and respect your dog’s limits
Hiking is a great form of exercise for dogs, but it’s important to understand and respect our dogs’ limits. Think about your dog’s age and level of physical fitness when planning a hike. If your dog is overweight, older, or not used to hiking, they will hike more slowly and tire faster. Go at their pace. While hiking can help to keep dogs’ weight down and prevent arthritis, too much activity can exacerbate joint problems. It’s not “normal” for a dog to be limping after a hike or romp at the beach - it means they’re in pain. Have them take it easy for a few days and consult a vet if it continues. Be careful with intense games of chase or fetch. Dogs can sustain knee or back injuries if they run, twist, or jump excessively. Puppies, especially, should not run excessively or jump off surfaces before a year of age as this can damage their growth plates.
Consider the weather when planning a hike. Dogs have less mass relative to their surface area than people, and they can’t sweat, so they’re much more susceptible to heat exhaustion. Brachycephalic (short nosed) dogs like bulldogs can be especially sensitive to heat or exertion. On hot days, hike in the early morning or evening hours, or stick to shady trails and take it slow, offering lots of water. Test the parking lot or sidewalk with a flat palm - if you can’t keep it there for 5 seconds, it’s too hot for paws. If your dog is panting rapidly or lying down, it’s time to get them cooled off - stat. Similarly, on rainy, cold, or snowy days, consider a jacket and/or booties for your pup. Watch your pup carefully - shivering means it’s time to get them warmed up. Remember, dogs can’t tell us when they’ve had enough, so it’s on us to be conservative and to not wait for overt signs of fatigue or injury.