The Trails Are Calling You and Your Dog

VSPositivelyTrailblogTrent&KenzoCampobelloIslandNBCA1015November 17th is National Take a Hike Day. At my house, almost every day is take your dog for a hike day. My crew and I love to get out into the woods and experience nature. I feel most at home there and I can tell that my dogs feel the same way. It soothes my soul to be in the woods experiencing peace and tranquility. If you feel the same, but have not taken your dogs with you, what are you waiting for? Hiking is not only good physical exercise for your dog, it’s a great mental stimulation experience as well. It’s also a really fabulous bonding experience.

There are a number of ways that you can share your love of hiking with your dogs. This blog post will focus on local hikes and localish day hikes, rather than backpacking. Backpacking involves much more preparation as well as instructive information so in order to not reinvent the wheel here, I am simply targeting newcomers to hiking with dogs. For a more involved explanation of backpacking/overnight trips with dogs, see this link.

There are some common sense considerations that you must consider before venturing out with your best canine friend.

  • First and foremost, match the hike to your dog’s current physical condition. Not taking proper precautions can have tragic consequences that will eradicate the memories of any fun that you had.
    • If your dog is not used to strenuous physical exercise, then choose easy trails that are flat and shorter.
    • Keep your hikes short and gradually build up to more challenging excursions.
    • Conditioning a dog to more exercise is just as important as conditioning yourself to more exercise.
    • Senior dogs are better off on short flat local trails rather than challenging terrain.
  • Part of conditioning your dog to hiking is making sure that his paw pads are kept safe from the elements.
    • Winter hiking will require either boots or Musher’s Secret.
    • If you have a furry footed dog that will be hiking in snow, keeping his toe fur trimmed will prevent icy/snowy build-up in addition to the use of Musher’s Secret.
  • Keep your dog’s coat length and heat or cold tolerance in mind when conditioning and hiking.
    • Short coated dogs will need some sort of outdoor wear for warmth in colder climates.
    • Each dog is different. Make it a point to be observant and know your own dog(s).

Depending on the distance of your hike, you might want to consider taking some water and a portable bowl so that your best friend can refresh himself after the exertion or even during, especially if the season calls for it. I have learned that my own dogs like a cool drink after a hike, even in the winter time. The amount of water that they drink varies with the length of the hike and the season but it’s better to be prepared than be without. I carry collapsible bowls in my vehicle along with water. During warmer weather, I carry a CamelBak with a collapsible bowl tucked in the back so that we can all have access to water while on the trail. It goes without saying that when we do a day hike of more than a mile or two, I also carry a backpack with extra water as well as snacks.

Of course, you will also need to make sure that you have some kind of tick protection in place. Several years ago, it was more likely to only need to worry about most tick borne diseases the further east that you lived. Sadly, the disease carrying ticks are in almost every part of the country now. Some of the most well known products no longer work in some regions that they were most popular in. Do your research and choose your products wisely.

I have personally not found a natural product that works well enough to use. And that is not at all because I eschew natural products. In fact, I prefer them. But one of my dogs has a coat thick enough to hide small children in so ticks are an impossibility to find. However, doing a tick check after every hike is never going to be a bad idea. I slide my hands over his coat before he gets back into the car. If I fail to remove a random tick with my brush off technique, he is still protected with tick repellant.

Depending on where I am planning on hiking and for how long, I might use a backpack on my dog. I typically would only do this if I were planning a day hike for more than a few miles a bit of a distance from my home. If you plan on introducing a backpack to your dog, you should also plan on properly acclimating your dog to wearing a backpack first. This is a gradual process done before you have your dog wear it on the trail. There are a number of companies that make quality backpacks. Different brands of backpacks fit different dogs.

Here are some well known companies.



There is also Outward Hound, Kurgo, and R.E.I. to name but a few.

Choose your backpack with a comfortable fit in mind. Educate yourself on how a quality backpack should fit your dog. It’s not helpful to your dog if you potentially misalign his structure by choosing the wrong pack for him. When you have the right pack for your dog, start your acclimation process.

  • Plan to have your dog wear the empty backpack first until he is comfortable with it.
  • Then stuff the panniers with newspaper and have him wear it that way until he is comfortable.
  • Only then can you gradually add weight.
  • Different dogs can handle different percentages of their total body weight. It can range from 10 to 30% with obviously a well conditioned dog only on the higher end. Use common sense.

I am a strong believer in always taking treats on walks but in particular, on hikes with all of the wildlife distractions that we can encounter. Training happens every moment that you are with your dog. It’s no harder to hike with treats than without. This can be especially relevant when you are planning a day hike. The treats can also function as snack for replenished energy rather than just food rewards for making good decisions. Plan your food stash wisely. Carry more for day hikes.

"Leave no trace" is a buzz phrase with in-the-know hikers. Respecting the environment means that you leave mother-nature the way that you found her! Bagging your dog’s waste is equally important in the woods as it is in your own neighborhood.

Where you choose to hike will determine whether your dog can be off leash or not. The on/off leash debate is as much a hot button as politics or religion so I won’t delve too deeply on that subject here. I will emphasize the rules, however. If you choose to hike in an area that requires dogs be on leash, please be sure to abide by that requirement. Just because your dog is friendly doesn’t mean that other hikers should have to deal with your dog coming up to say hi. Defying the rules in wilderness areas causes potential fallout on all hikers with dogs. Don’t be that person. Your dog can only follow along with what situation you place him in. Be the courteous hiker with a controlled dog. After all, it’s hard to practice “leave no trace” if your dog is off leash.

Most public access wilderness lands require leashes for good reasons. So if you are in such an area, please leash up and keep not only other hikers feeling safer, but your own dog safer. Ditch the retractable leash and use either a long line if you have good voice control of your dog or a 6 foot leash, which is actually the requirement in many wilderness areas. Remember, leashes prevent your dog from chasing a deer, etc. as well as potentially getting lost. That isn’t how you want to end your hike. Off leash dogs can easily chase wildlife. That causes stress to those animals. The world is already a challenging place. Don’t add that kind of stress on the animals that live there. You are the visitor. They are home. Be the courteous guest who gets asked back.

Although on most trails on foot hikers have the right of way over bicyclists, it’s far easier for the on foot hiker to get off the trail when others are approaching. The rules or manners will vary with locale but in general, if you are hiking with multiple dogs (or even one dog!), it’s considered mannerly to get yourself and your dogs off the trail to let other trail users such as hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders pass by easily. If two single dog hikers are approaching one another, who lets who pass easily is best left to the individuals based on how well trained each dog is. Even if someone offers to let me pass first, I always give priority to the other party. It gives me an opportunity to control the situation better which is the best option when hiking with multiple dogs.

As far as training cues that can come in handy while hiking, my dogs have been taught quite a few cues that apply to this situation. One of the first things that I taught my dog’s as puppies is a “fix” cue. That is my solution to not having to bend over constantly to untangle leashes from legs and feet. Once taught this, my dogs typically will untangle themselves, both front and back legs. This is also helpful for teaching dogs that they have back legs, as many don’t consider this aspect when deciding where to step! If a dog ignores a leash under a leg, a request to the dog in question quickly remedies the situation. My dogs also offer a sit on the trail when we get off to the side. I have taught them a “Find It” for sniffing when others are passing. I also taught my now at the bridge dogs a cue for “Front” as well as “Right” or “Left” of me as needed.

Now that you have some insight into hiking with dogs, I urge you to consider this activity if the woods call your name. Creating new happy memories with your dog is a beautiful experience. Have fun out there!

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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