When hiking alone or with friends, the Boy Scout motto “be prepared” could not be more relevant. In the wilderness, anything can potentially go wrong - from unexpected injuries to severe changes in weather conditions. For those who like to hike with their dogs, planning ahead and being is a necessity. Whether you are a day hiker, or a multi-day, extreme terrain hiker, here are some guidelines to help make hiking with your dog safe and enjoyable.
1. Health and Stamina: Prior to deciding to hike with your dog it is important to consider his ability to handle physical exertion. For novice hikers who plan to walk through level, pine needle covered trails, this is less of a concern. If you are more of an extreme hiker, ascending and descending several thousand feet per day, then the physical stamina and condition of your dog is a critical factor in your decision. The time of year and temperature also play a role. Brachycephalic (short snout) breeds can have difficulty staying cool in hot, humid summer temperatures. Similarly, older, large breed dogs with arthritis are not well-suited to mountain hiking. If you are in doubt, ask your veterinarian about your dog’s ability to handle the level of hiking you are considering. Your dog should also be vaccinated for Distemper, Parvovirus, Rabies, Leptospirosis, and Lyme disease since these are diseases present in the wild animal and insect populations.
2. Regulations: Many trails and state parks allow dogs, but many national parks do not. Follow all of the rules stated at the trailhead regarding pets hiking with you. Many trails exist through the kindness of land owners granting access to their private property. Respecting the rules helps to insure access for future hikers and their dogs. For hiking trails that allow dogs, check out the following: BringFido.com and HikeWithYourDog.com.
3. Parasites: Many hikers know that with woods and water, come mosquitoes. Annoying and itchy mosquito bites can be abundant at certain times of the year. Consider using a natural mosquito repellent on your dog (and you) while hiking. In addition, mosquitoes can carry heartworm disease, so be sure to keep your dog up to date with his heartworm preventative.
- Apply a good flea and tick preventative at least 48 hours before a hiking trip. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
- If you hike in a heavily infested tick area, discuss the option of twice a year vaccination for Lyme disease with your veterinarian.
- Lakes and rivers can harbor the causative agents of Giardiasis and Leptospirosis. Limit your dog’s drinking water to what you bring or what you have run through an approved backwoods water filter. Still, accidents can happen. Most dogs are vaccinated for Leptospirosis when they receive their Distemper/Parvovirus vaccine. For avid hikers, discuss a twice a year vaccination for Leptospirosis with your veterinarian. The vaccine protects against 4-5 of the most common subtypes of leptospira. Since there are greater than 250 subtypes in the United States, it will not protect against all leptospira organisms, but it can help.
4. Dog Backpacks: For day hikes or multi-day hikes, consider a backpack for your dog. He can carry some of his own food, water, and other supplies. It is important to get him used to this ahead of time, working up to full carrying weight.
- As a rule of thumb, dogs should carry no more than 25% of their body weight.
- Older dogs should carry less, and some muscular breeds can carry up to 10% more.
- Dogs with previous histories of lower neck injury or spinal disease should not carry a backpack.
- Backpacks should fit properly so they do not chafe or cause injury. To fit your backpack properly go to www.trails.com/how_7940_fit-dog-backpack.html. Many types of dog backpacks are available through hiking and camping retailers. Consider a backpack with a top handle in case you need to help your dog up a difficult climb or to support him while crossing a river or stream.
5. A New Leash on Life: Hiking with your dog can open up a whole new world of exploration and excitement, but it is important to be safe. Collars or harnesses with proper identification are a must. Consider permanent identification, such as a microchip, so your dog can be found and returned should he get lost. For many trails, being on a leash is mandatory. Even if it is not required, always carry a 4 to 6 foot, non-retractable leash with you. Being on a leash even when it is not required, may help keep your dog out of trouble. Also, be honest with yourself about your dog’s training and recall abilities. Dogs that are easily distracted by scent or with poor recall should always be leashed.
6. The Chuck Wagon: Hiking can burn a great deal of calories. For strenuous hiking trails, your dog’s energy requirement may double. As a rule of thumb you should carry one cup of dry food per 20 pounds of body weight. For shorter day trips, carry healthy snacks such as apples, carrots, peanut butter and cookie treats. A small meal an hour before the hike will give him some extra energy. The minimum water requirement for dogs is 1 ounce per pound of body weight per day. For hiking, this amount should be doubled. Water filters work well for multi-day trips. Water purifying tablets are not recommended since they make the water distasteful and many dogs may not drink it. Collapsible food and water bowls are lightweight and available through many hiking and camping retailers.
7. Clothing and Boots: Even for day trips, consider bringing along a dog raincoat and a dog vest. Sudden downpours and changes in temperature can lead to hypothermia in a wet, tired dog. On hot days, a vest can be soaked in a stream and worn by your dog to help stay cool. For overnight trips, a blanket or a small child’s sleeping bag can add to your dog’s safety and comfort. Keeping your dog’s feet protected is always a concern when hiking. Level, forest trails with soft pine needle or a moss covering usually do not require foot protection. For long hikes on uneven or rocky, craggy terrain, using booties can help prevent serious cuts and pad injuries.
8. First Aid Kits: Just as you should always take a first aid kit for yourself, you should also carry a first aid kit for your dog. Pad cuts, lacerations, and eye injuries can occur and need to be addressed until you can get to a veterinarian. Many pet first aid kits are available online. For those who we will be hiking frequently with their dog, they should consider taking a pet first aid course offered by the American Red Cross.
9. Sunscreen: Dogs that spend a long day in the sun or at higher elevations are prone to getting a sunburn. This exposure can be damaging to their skin and may lead to a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Use sunscreen to protect your dog’s ear tips, nose and underbelly when hiking.
10. The Poop Scoop: “Take pictures and leave only footprints” applies to your dog, as well. Solid waste should be buried or double bagged and taken out with you. You should learn the waste policy for the park or trail you will be using ahead of time. If you bury your dog’s waste, it should be at least 200 feet from a stream or a campsite and at least 6 inches deep.
11. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My: The woods are the domain of wildlife and we are just visitors to their home. Under no circumstances should you allow your dog to approach, chase, or harass wildlife. It is both dangerous and illegal. For those who live in the western United States rattlesnakes can be a hidden danger. If you hike with your dog, consider enrolling him in a rattlesnake aversion training course. It may save his life. The course should be repeated every couple of years.
12. Miss Manners: Your dog should be accustomed to strangers and other dogs approaching unexpectedly. If there are other hikers, bikers, or horse riders around, he should be leashed so he does not scare or intrude on the outdoor experience of others. Is also important to leash him on steep terrain so that he does not slide, fall or accidentally knock down other hikers.
13. Day is Done, Gone the Sun: At the end of your trip, check your dog for ticks, foot injuries or abrasions. Ending the day with a warm bath can soothe your dog’s tired muscles and also wash off any dirt, debris, or plant sap that made irritate his skin.