In his younger years, my Australian Shepherd Koda and I enjoyed our fair share of long beautiful trails together. At his prime he’d happily climb mountains all day long – I was always the one trying to keep up with him! Even at 13 years old, Koda is still convinced he’s up for the task, but his heart and legs just can’t keep up anymore. He still begs to get outside and go exploring with me, and I’m never one to say no to my baby boy. Over the years I’ve learned some useful ‘hiking with dogs’ tips and tricks, and learned to adjust based on Koda’s skill and needs. If you’re thinking of taking a four-legged pal on a hike, here are some things to keep in mind that will keep you, your dog, and other hikers happier.
Is hiking right for YOUR dog?
First things first is to make sure your pup is even up for the task! Most dogs, regardless of size, make excellent hiking companions as long as they are physically fit for the level of hiking that you plan to do, if they are obedient, if they are socialized among people and other dogs, and if the weather is not too hot. These are important “ifs”! There are adjustments that can be made however, to make sure pups of all sizes and ages can enjoy the outdoors!
Hiking is more strenuous than walking. The terrain is uneven and usually involves vertical gain. If you spend more time lounging around than exercising, chances are good that your dog does too. Likewise, if you’ve mapped out a 10-mile hike but your daily dog walk consists of a casual stroll around the block, you may be carrying your pooch for the second half of the hiking route. Before you load up your dog in the car, make an honest assessment of your dog’s fitness level to be sure it can comfortably go the distance.
In addition to its fitness level, your dog may have other health considerations that affect its ability to hike. Take these seriously! For example, brachycephalic (flat faced) breeds can have trouble breathing, so the temperature and length of the hike need to be taken into serious consideration. Koda now has a little arthritis, as well as heart disease so ANY kind of strenuous exercise or hot weather is strictly off the table for him. In order to compensate, we may simply drive to a trail I know is short with no elevation gain at all, on a cloudy and cooler day. Otherwise if i’m feeling up for something longer, I’ll load up his all-terrain stroller or grab my dog-carrying backpack! There are so many products on the market that make getting your dog outside possible, despite whatever health concerns they may have. These are our favorites: Dogger Stroller & K9 Sport Sack Backpack
If you feel your dog is fit enough, then ask yourself whether they are sufficiently well-behaved. Hiking may take place in the wild, but that does not mean you will be alone. Be sure they can heel, sit, stay, and come at your verbal command. Your dog should also be comfortable on a leash with polite leash manners. As importantly, your dog should be completely socialized among other dogs and humans. Trails are narrow, often with dense undergrowth on either side. You will be close to others when you pass on the trail or at the top of a popular mountain. If your dog is aggressive or overly protective, it will not be a good hiker-dog. Ditto if it’s prone to barking, which disturbs the quiet that so many people value on their hikes.
Size & Age
Assuming your dog is in shape and well-mannered, most dogs over 30lbs will make a great hiking companion, which is not to say that small dogs cannot trot down the trail just fine. An energetic Pomeranian can out race a lazy Labrador if the trail is relatively smooth and short. However, small dogs have to take a lot more steps to cover the same piece of ground, and they cannot jump as far up or down a rock, so they may need a lift where a larger dog would not. For my little Pomeranian, I always bring along my K9 Sport Sack backpack for when he gets tired!
Personally I feel like age is actually more of a factor than size. Old dogs, like old people, have stiffer joints, arthritis, and other ailments that reduce their physical abilities. Be gentle with puppies too. Lack of obedience training aside, hiking up and down steep, uneven trails can adversely affect the development of a growing puppy’s hips, shoulders, and other joints, which are not fully formed.
Keeping Your Dog Safe
So you’ve determined your pooch is up for the task! Even though they may be physically capable, it is still up to you to keep them safe. Not every hike is dog-friendly, and those that are might still have elements that seem attractive to you but that could pose a danger to your dog.
Leash your dog
There are many tempting smells and critters out in the wilderness. Squirrels are all too fun to chase, but we are also sharing the world with other animals who could prove to be a dangerous advisory to your pup. There are also cliffs and other rough terrain you wouldn’t want your dog to fall down. Even if your dog is impeccably obedient at following commands and friendly with other people and pets, you can’t always trust OTHER people’s dogs if you’re on a busy trail. To avoid any scares—or worse—be sure to put your dog on a leash.
Always bring fresh water for your dog. Yes, your dog will want to drink lake or river water but he’s safer drinking water that you bring from home. Do all you can to discourage drinking any water you encounter on your hike. You’ll not only reduce his risk of running into potentially bad bacteria and parasites like giardia but also reduce the chance of minor tummy troubles.
Watch out for blue-green algae. Hot weather also means a bloom of blue-green algae on many lakes and ponds. This algae is toxic for dogs and can be fatal. If you suspect that your dog has swallowed blue-green algae, it’s important to get him to the veterinarian immediately. No antidote for the toxins exists, but supportive care may help your dog survive.
Essential Items for Hiking with Dogs
Leash: Avoid long leashes. A better choice is either a short heeling leash or a moderate leash under 10 feet long that you can quickly shorten to heeling length. There are even nice hiking specific leashes that are completely hands free!
Tick Removal Tool: Just like humans, dogs are susceptible to tick-borne diseases. I always make sure to carry my handy “tick key” for easy removal for my pup or myself.
Collar and Identification: Make sure your dog has a well-fitting collar or harness with your telephone number and your dog’s name, rabies tag, and license on it.
Water: Always make sure to bring enough water for yourself and your dog. I’d recommend about 8oz per 10lbs of pooch.
Collapsible water/food dish: Make sure to bring your pup his own water dish. Drinking straight out of the bottle can be incredibly messy and wasteful. I like the lightweight, collapsible kind that can hook right to my backpack. Like these!
Dog food/snacks: Bring actual dog food and/or dog treats, which are nutritionally balanced and easier for dogs to digest than human food.
Poop bags, plus extras: “Leave no trace” is the name of the game. It’s no fun carrying poop for an entire hike, but you need to pack it out. I bring extra so I can double bag them!
Dog first-aid kit: Basic components should include the following, but you can also purchase pre-made kits for convenience!
- Bandage scissors
- Dog toenail clippers
- Cleansers and disinfectants such as hydrogen peroxide and Betadine
- Topical antibiotic ointments such as Bacitracin or Neomycin
- Gauze pads
- Gauze roll
- Non-stick bandages
- Adhesive tape (1- and 2-inch rolls)
- Muzzle: Even the most passive dog can get snappy when stressed due to injury
Non-essential Item Suggestions
K9 Sport Sack – If your pup may not be physically up for hiking, but still wants to enjoy the fresh air. I can’t recommend these backpacks enough! At 30lbs, Koda is a little heavy to carry in one of these for long distances, but I use one for my 8lb pomeranian ALL the time! He absolutely loves it.
Hiking Boots – If you’re worried about your pups feet – hiking boots might be the solution! Koda once had a small cut on his foot, and I had him wear just one to keep it clean while we went for our hike. It worked wonders! Folks seem to love the RuffWear brand booties.
Cooling Vests – These are magic! On hot days, you can really do your dog a favor by bringing along a cooling vest for them. RuffWear makes my personal favorite.
Packable Dog Bed – Since both of my pups are now “seniors” I always bring along a packable dog bed so we can stop and rest along the way. Bonus points if the bed is weather resistant and machine washable like these Kurgo brand ones!