Take a Hike! (With Your Dog)

Forethought and planning can help ensure that your hikes with your dog are all fun and no mishaps.

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I love hiking with my dogs, and one of my favorite things about living in the Pacific Northwest is the abundance of dog friendly hiking trails available to us. Over the years, I have learned a great many things about how to take a safe and enjoyable hike with dogs – some things that you really should do, and some things that you really should not do. Here are 10 tips for ensuring a great time for all involved.

Safety

Being out in nature is a great way to relax and connect with your dog, but it’s important to think about safety. With three dogs of various ages, sizes, and abilities (from 2 to 17 years old, 10 pounds to 103 pounds, and one dog with two surgically reconstructed knees), I take a lot of precautions to ensure everyone’s safety when we hit the trails.

1. All of the normal safety precautions for hiking in general apply to hiking with dogs – and then some. Tell other people where you are going and when you will be back. Monitor weather conditions. Be realistic about your own skill and fitness level. Carry trail maps; don’t just rely on your phone, as GPS signals might not work in the backcountry. Turn back early so you are back before dark. Don’t approach wild animals. Carry a cell phone (though, again, be aware you may be out of signal range). Carry water.

When you’re going with a dog, do all of the above, and carry extra water for your dog, and allow yourself give extra time for the hike.

Also, monitor weather conditions to ensure temperatures aren’t too hot for your dog to safely hike. Because (unfortunately) the general public can’t always be trusted to make good decisions for their dogs, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, piloted a program that banned dogs from hiking on trails when the weather is 100 degrees or more. People caught with dogs on the trails in those temperatures can be fined or jailed. The program took effect after multiple dogs died while hiking in the Phoenix heat.

2. Be realistic about your dog’s abilities, and aware that they can change. “The dog’s general health and athleticism should be considered before planning a hike,” says Stacey Rebello, DVM, medical director of emergency services at NorthStar Vets Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Speciality Center in New Jersey. “And the duration and length of the hike should be adjusted to ensure the pet can tolerate it.”

On your hike, watch for symptoms of tiring. Turn back before injury or exhaustion occurs. Signs that your hiking plans need adjustment include an adolescent dog who has more energy than stamina or a senior dog who has a hard time keeping up. Any dog who seems to be over-tired the next day or has difficulty recovering from the hike needs more conditioning before attempting that hike again.

I’ve found that trails rated as a good match for hiking with children work well for most dogs.

Leash Laws

Although many people like hiking in naural settings with their dogs off-leash, this is not allowed in many areas, including most state and national parks.

3. Be sure you know the regulations that govern trail use by dogs for any area you plan to hike with your dogs – and follow them! Some dog owners believe that their dogs are so well trained that they should be allowed to hike off-leash; however, leash laws exist to keep everyone safe, including the leashed dogs, other trail users (canine and human), and wildlife.

Following leash laws also helps ensure that you and your dog will be able to hike again another day. If people can’t be trusted to follow rules and keep their dogs leashed to protect wildlife and fragile vegetation, more wilderness areas will ban dogs all together.

Also, be sure to doublecheck that dogs are allowed on the trails at your planned hiking location before leaving your house. Dogs are allowed in many national parks – but are often restricted to campgrounds (not allowed on trails), and must be in the company of one of their owners at all times. When researching dog-friendly trails, I find local websites are better than hiking guide books; they are more frequently updated with information about current trail conditions or regulations.

4. In areas where dogs are permitted to be off-leash, take your dog off-leash only if he isn’t a danger to himself or others. Just because you hike in an area where dogs are allowed to be off leash doesn’t mean you should remove the leash, says Cincinatti dog trainer Nick Hof, a Board member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. “If your dog is off-leash in a permitted area, your dog should have excellent recall skills and be good with any other people or dogs you come across,” Hof says.

BARK Ranger Program

In 2015 the National Park Service began a new program to work with responsible dog lovers to find ways to make national parks more friendly to dogs while protecting their fragile ecosystems. The BARK Ranger program was piloted in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The program was expanded to Montezuma Castle National Monument in 2016 and is now at many national parks nationwide. The program offers structured activities like guided hikes with dogs and the opportunity to get official park gear for your dog.

BARK stands for:

Bag your dog’s waste

Always use a leash

Respect wildlife

Know where you can go

Participants in the BARK Ranger program take a pledge to follow park guidelines to be good examples and good ambassadors in the parks.

Some parks allow dogs and their owners to volunteer as BARK Ranger Ambassadors, making contact with national park visitors and their dogs to ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable visit. The goal of the Ambassador program is to reduce the number of non-compliant dog incidents in the parks and increase awareness about park rules and training. The teams receive training on how to approach visitors, thank them for following park rules, and request that they comply if they aren’t. BARK Ambassadors also receive special vests for the dogs and t-shirts for the handlers and have scheduled volunteer shifts in the park.

To learn more about what parks near you offer BARK Ranger programs, visit nationalparkpaws.com/the-bark-ranger-program/. If your local park isn’t listed, call the park’s ranger station and let them know you would participate in a BARK Ranger Program if one were started. The National Park Service looks for interest from dog owners to decide where to expand the program next.

“Remember, when you take your dog off-leash in an unsecured area, you are betting his life that you can predict how he will handle any situation and feel confident that you all will succeed,” says Hof.

Hof advises for leashed and unleashed dogs to practice the occasional recall, reinforcing prompt responses generously. This reinforces not only the dogs’ recall but also that hiking near you is rewarding.

Trail Etiquette

If you have found an enjoyable place to hike with your dog, the odds are that other trail users appreciate the area, too. Be sure you are the trail user that others enjoy seeing – or at least, don’t notice!

5. Always be courteous to others and to nature when you and your dogs are out on the trail. Be sure to bring plenty of poop bags with you and pick up after your dog.

It can be tempting to let your dog go crashing through the underbrush, but this is disruptive to the plants and animals. Teach your dog that part of hiking is staying on the trail.

Keep in mind that not everyone likes dogs or wants to greet them on the trail. It’s not acceptable to let your dog approach another dog or person without the person’s permission or invitation.

6. Share the trail! Keep your dog close to you when hiking. Whenever possible, I put myself between my dog and other hikers to protect everyone (I’ve actually had a hiker reach out and grab my dog’s tail while doing an unsolicited “drive by pet”).

If you are on a trail that also allows horses, be sure to bring your dog close to you, giving extra space to the horses. Be aware that a dog who jumps up or barks at a horse might spook the horse – and that some some dogs may be spooked by horses! A dog who bolts away from the horses in fear may cause the horses to spook in turn, so unless you know that your dog will be calm and unafraid, put even more space between him and any equestrians.

Similarly, mountain bikes are common on many hiking trails. Ideally mountain bikers will slow or even possibly dismount before biking past you and your dog, especially if a trail is narrow. But if not, be aware that bikes may startle some dogs, so keep your dog close and put yourself between your dog and the bike.

7. Don’t impose your dog’s “issues” on others. If your dog displays aggression or reactivity toward other dogs or people, “you should either be working on those issues or have a plan in mind for how to mitigate any issues that may come from those,” Hof recommends.

One of my dogs is a former street dog and she’s very reactive to other dogs, so we seek out trails in areas where all dogs are required to be on on-leash, and that have reviews indicating they are only lightly used. If we arrive somewhere and find that the trails are crowded, or that people are breaking the leash laws, we simply leave and find somewhere else to go. It’s just not reasonable to expect other people to anticipate that your dog poses a greater than average potential for aggression to them!

Gear

Good quality, comfortable gear can make or break a hike for us, and it’s no different for our dogs.

8. When getting ready to go hiking, it’s important to make sure that your dog’s gear fits and is in good condition. No half-chewed leashes or harnesses with frayed stitching! And the trailhead is not the place to fit gear for the first time! Check the gear and adjust it for his comfort at home.

“I almost always prefer harnesses to collars for leash attachment,” Hof says. Note that harnesses have more contact with the dog and so pose a greater risk of rubbing and causing a raw, sore spot. Check your dog frequently when he’s wearing new gear, especially in sensitive places that are hard to see as you walk along – under his elbows, for example.

If you want your dog to carry a pack on your hikes, be sure to start slowly. It’s a good idea to visit to your veterinarian to ensure your dog is structurally sound enough to carry a pack. Also talk to your vet about what amount of weight would be appropriate.

Conditioning

In addition to choosing the right trails to hike with your dog, you need to condition him slowly to keep him from getting sore or injured.

Dog Scouts of America

Dog Scouts of America is a national scouting troop for dogs and their people, where dogs can earn badges for learning tricks and skills, including hiking. Kelly Ford, Leader of Dog Scout Troop 219 and a Dog Scouts of America Scoutmaster, says that there is an abundance of hiking badges and titles that can be earned by dogs and their owners. “The ‘Trails’ titles include backpacking, hiking, letterboxing, and geocaching with many achievement levels. Dog Scout badges include Backpacking and Hiking,” Ford says.

For dogs to earn the backpacking badges and titles, they must carry a pack with their own survival gear. To ensure safety, Ford says, “We stress the importance of keeping the packs lightweight, especially for our smaller Scouts.”

To earn hiking badges with Dog Scouts of America, dogs and their handlers need to complete a required number of miles and submit a log sheet. The first level of the dog hiking titles is 50 miles.

Being courteous and respectful is an important part of being a Dog Scout. “Polite trail behavior is always important in our Scouts. We also teach a ‘leave it,’ which applies to wildlife, roadkill, fish hooks, or anything on the trail that could pose a danger,” Ford explains.

“My dogs are always excited to go hiking with their Dog Scout Troop,” Ford says. “Their fellow Scouts ase are their best friends. Our Troop has learned a lot of new things and explored new places together.”

To learn how to get involved with dog scouting, see dogscouts.org.

9. Don’t force your dog to be a weekend warrior. Dr. Mandi Blackwelder, DVM, CCRP, owner of Healing Arts Animal Care in Beaverton, Oregon, cautions against taking our dogs along on infrequent and/or overambitious types of hikes. “They (and we!) are much more likely to be injured either during the hike or when we are sore afterward,” says Dr. Blackwelder. Instead, she advises that dog owners who want to start hiking begin a regular, structured exercise routine locally, long before making long drives to desinations for long hikes. “The first thing to do to prepare your dog for hiking is daily walks of increasing length, changing up terrain, and adding hills,” she says.

If you plan for your dog to wear a pack on the trails, you need to start conditioning her for that on your local walks, too. Start with an empty pack and slowly increase the weight (going no higher than what your vet advises) and length of time your dog wears the pack.

And when you do get to the trails, monitor your dog carefully. “Know your dog,” warns Dr. Blackwelder. “If she is a kamikaze hiker, be prepared to corral her before she is exhausted. If your dog is cautious, then work on some uneven terrain (rocks, gravel, bark) beforehand so you’re not forcing a march she is not ready for.”

Dr. Blackwelder offered the additional caution that it’s important to think about your dog’s specific structural or health needs. If your dog has preexisting health conditions, is overweight, or is a short-nosed breed, take additional precautions to prevent her from becoming overheated.

First Aid

Trying to prevent injuries should be foremost, but being prepared with a few essentials can be invaluable in case of an emergency on the trail.

10. Stuff happens, so prevent what you can and be prepared to deal with what you can’t. “Traumatic injuries, including abrasions, lacerations, and stick impalment are not uncommon when dogs are allowed to run through wooded areas. The risk of these types of injuries can be mitigated by keeping your dog on a leash and following an existing/established trail,” Dr. Rebello advises.

She advises that the most important thing to carry when hiking is water – to make sure dogs remain well-hydrated and to prevent overheating.

She also suggests carrying gauze and bandages. “If your pet is injured, the goal should be to get medical attention as quickly as possible. Spending exorbitant amounts of time on field first aid is less important than getting them to a veterinarian as quickly as possible,” Dr. Rebello says. “Rinse any wounds with clean water, apply firm pressure to stop bleeding, and place a temporary bandage until they can be assessed by a veterinarian.”

Dr. Rebello says “the biggest concern for owners who take their pets hiking is the risk of exposure to infectious diseases and parasites.” She advises dog guardians to ensure that their dogs’ tick preventatives are up to date before hiking, and to check their dog for ticks when they take breaks during a hike and when they get off the trail.

In addition, she warns dog owners to prevent their dogs from drinking from ponds, puddles, or streams on the trail that could be contaminated with leptospirosis; instead, bring enough clean water for you and your dog. And finally, “Owners should consider ancillary vaccinations for Lyme and leptospirosis for dogs who regularly go hiking, hunting, or live in highly wooded areas,” she says.

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