Taking your dog on a hike can be one of the best parts about having a canine companion. It’s great exercise, good for keeping dogs socialized and just a really fun way to spend time together. But if you and your pooch haven’t hiked together before, take a few minutes to go over some basic rules before you hit the trailhead.
Keep Your Dog Vaccinated
Like humans, dogs can get Lyme disease and a host of other nasty critter-spread maladies from the trail. Talk to your vet before hiking season begins to make sure your dog is up to date on all shots. And after the hike, be sure to check thoroughly for ticks, burrs and other undesirable hangers-on.
Know the Laws
The majority of local, state and national parks where dogs are allowed require you to keep them on-leash. Most of the time, those leashes have a maximum length limit, so leave the retractable leash at home.
Some parks will allow off-leash dogs in certain areas, or allow you to go without a leash as long as your dog is within verbal command. But even in these areas, be cautious. Not everyone else on the trail is going to be a dog person — and you never know how other people’s dogs are going to act, let alone the other wildlife. So even if your dog is off-leash, be sure to have a leash handy just in case.
Make Sure Your Dog Is in Shape
If it’s your first time hiking with your dog, don’t go all out on a 12-mile expedition. Just like when you started hiking, start off on the easy trails and work your way up to the big ones ... or you might end up packing your pooped-out puppy on your shoulders on the way out.
What to Pack
You wouldn’t go on a hike without food or water, so don’t let your dog go without them, either. Dogs tend to get overheated a lot faster than people do — so make sure you keep them well hydrated along the way. A lot of companies sell dog backpacks, which will take the weight off of your pack. And if your dog is a working breed, it makes them feel like they’re doing something important. As a general rule, dogs can comfortably carry from one-quarter to one-third of their body weight in gear.
Know First Aid
Generally, your dog is going to be fine on the trail — but it’s always best to be prepared. Many outdoor retailers sell first-aid kits tailored to canine companions (and some offer free classes as well). Many dog parents recommend Randy Acker’s book “Field Guide to Dog First Aid” as a helpful emergency guide. It’ll cover what to do if your dog gets injured in the backcountry, and is full of good info to know.
If you’re drinking water along the trail, you’re supposed to sanitize it first to kill any harmful bacteria, parasites or viruses. Make the same consideration for your dog. Make sure your dog doesn’t drink too much from rivers, lakes or puddles, and try to keep your dog only drinking the water you’ve packed for them.
Do yourself a favor and pick up a collapsible water bowl for them, too. They’re light, cheap and fold down quite a bit so they’re easy to pack. If you want to go the extra mile, pack an electrolyte/energy replacement drink formulated for dogs. Search-and-rescue and sled-dog owners use these drinks to keep up their dogs’ energy levels while out in the wilderness.
When you’re hiking, you’re probably doing it in tough, rubber-soled boots that protect you from sharp rocks, heat and other dangers. Dogs have no such luxury. I know they look ridiculous, but dog boots really are one of the best bets for your four-legged hiking buddy. You always should use them if you’re hiking through ice or snow, rough terrain or on rocks when it’s going to be sunny and more than 70 degrees. Some of my readers also have suggested putting a bit of petroleum jelly on your puppy’s paws before you hit the trail.
No boots? Be sure to stop and check your puppy’s paws every once in a while for cuts, scrapes, bruises or rocks stuck between the toes. In a pinch, liquid bandages are a cheap and quick fix, but if you do notice any cuts on their pads, be sure to take them to a vet after the hike in case they need antibiotics. If your dog ever shows signs of pain or slowing down on the trail, they need your help.
I know we’ve all seen tiny dogs in sparkly T-shirts and laughed, but sometimes having an extra layer can be beneficial for a dog. If it’s going to be chilly, a vest with some insulation will help keep your dog comfortable — especially for short-haired breeds. Alternately, if it’s hot, look for vests designed to be dunked in water while the pooch is wearing them. The vest will hold on to some of the moisture and help cool off your pup during hiking.
In hot or cold weather, depending on how fussy your dog is, you might want to bring an extra blanket, crash pad or sleeping pad for them. Keeping another layer between your dog and the ground will help keep your dog from getting too hot or too cold.
If your dog has to go on the trail, be sure to pick up after them — especially if it’s on the trail itself. While leaving dog poop off-trail isn’t the worst thing in the world, it’s probably not natural to the environment you’re hiking in and it will have an effect. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to step in anyone else’s leftover dog poop, so don’t leave it behind for other hikers, either.