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Hiking with Dogs: A Guide to Bringing Your Best Friend on the Trail

June 25, 2013

When my dog Bravo sees me carrying hiking boots or a daypack, he races to the door. As soon as it swings wide enough, he squeezes through and plants himself behind the car, quivering with anticipation. As the tailgate drops, he leaps gleefully inside. Once in the car, Bravo rides unobtrusively, no matter the distance, until pavement gets rougher. Then, as if on cue, he stands, whimpering impatiently. The whimper crescendos to a loud bark as the car stops at the trailhead. Bravo is my Chesapeake Bay retriever. Some days I hike simply because of Bravo.

When we reach the summit of a mountain, he looks at me expectantly with his large brown eyes, devours his share of our edibles, and then curls up next to me. He couldn’t care less about the view. He loves to hike because it fills his nose with a plethora of tantalizing odors and because he’s with me. I love to hike with him for the exercise and for his companionship.

Most dogs, regardless of size, make excellent hiking companions—if 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. In short, hiking with dogs takes more thought and preparation than simply starting up a trail. 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, and the environment healthier, beginning with determining whether you should even put your dog in the car:

Fitness
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 backpack, make an honest assessment of your dog’s fitness level to be sure it can comfortably go the distance. If you cannot feel your dog’s ribs through its fur, it would benefit from more exercise before you hit the trail.

Health
In addition to its fitness level, your dog may have other health considerations that affect its ability to hike. The two most common are nursing pups and hip dysplasia. For the former, it’s best to wait until pups are weaned. The pups need their mother nearby, and a nursing dog’s body is already under a lot of stress caring for the little ones. For hip dysplasia, a veterinarian might be able to prescribe medication to lessen Fido’s pain. Whatever you do, do not give your dog ibuprofen, such as Advil or Motrin, or naproxen such as Aleve! These anti-inflammatories can have dangerous, even lethal, side effects for dogs.

Behavior
If you feel your dog is fit enough, then ask yourself whether it is sufficiently well-behaved. Hiking may take place in the wild, but that does not mean you will be alone. Before you take your dog into the backcountry, be sure it can heel, sit, stay, and come at your verbal command. Your dog should also be comfortable on a leash and, if off-leash, be more interested in staying with you than in chasing chipmunks. 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 in the backcountry.

Size
Assuming your dog is in shape and well-mannered, almost any breed or mixed breed over 40 pounds should make a good hiker-dog, which is not to say that small dogs cannot trot down the trail just fine. An energetic Yorkshire terrier can humble a lazy black Lab 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 stretch as far up or down a rock, so they may need a lift where a larger dog would not. There are some trails that any dog can handle, of course, and others that only the most exceptional mountain dog should attempt. For everything in between, it is a judgment call.

Age
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. While smaller breeds tend to live longer, any dog age 10 or older should be carefully assessed before taking it on all but the easiest routes. 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 until a dog is at least nine months old in smaller breeds, and a year old in larger breeds.

Weather
Regardless of how mountain-savvy your dog is, if the weather is hot and humid, a flat, shaded route to a pond is a better choice than a steep, rocky scramble up an epic 4,000-footer. Or save hiking for another time. Though we much prefer the trail, Bravo and I have opted for a dock over a hike more than once.

All told, my furry friend and I have hiked over 500 miles together in New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Adirondacks. Our favorite hike? A tough choice, but Mount Moosilauke on the western edge of the White Mountains is a contender. Bravo has accompanied me up Moosilauke no fewer than eight times. He loves the relatively smooth footing and also wading in the refreshing streams that rush down its slopes. I love the ridge walk along the Appalachian Trail to the summit with its expansive view of Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials. But it really doesn’t matter what dog-friendly trail Bravo and I follow. Just getting out there together is what I cherish most.

Canine Trail Etiquette
You and your dog are both ambassadors for everyone else who hikes with dogs. It only takes a few incidents, a couple of outspoken dog-haters, or several expensive dog rescues for a backcountry area to become more restricted to dogs. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be a model dog master on the trail:

  • Keep your dog with you and under control at all times. Even when it’s off-leash, your dog should always be in sight and within range of your commands.
  • Hold the dog-to-human ratio at 1:1. If dogs outnumber people, it can be difficult to quickly control your dogs.
  • Limit the total number of dogs in your hiking group to two, regardless of the number of humans. Three or more dogs hiking together become a pack of dogs, which can be intimidating to other hikers and increases the impact to the environment.
  • Give dog-less hikers the right of way. When you meet others on the trail, put your dog on a leash, step out of the way, and command your dog to sit until the other hikers have passed.
  • Say a friendly hello to others on the trail to signal to your dog that a friend and not a foe approaches.
  • If you encounter a loose dog on the trail, put your own dog on a leash. You can control the situation better if at least your dog is leashed. Allow the two dogs to meet and sniff each other, and speak to them in a friendly manner. As soon as the brief introduction is over, continue briskly on your way, ignoring the other dog.
  • Prevent your pooch from begging. If you satisfy your dog with its own snacks and water, it will be less likely to beg from others.
  • Clean up after your dog just as you would after yourself, using Leave No Trace principles. Dogs are not wild animals, and their refuse is not part of nature. Carry out (the only option in the alpine zone) or bury dog waste in a hole that’s at least 6 to 8 inches deep and disguise the spot. Be sure the hole is at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, shelters, and campsites.
  • Do not allow your dog to disturb plants or wildlife. Keep your dog on the trail, and when above treeline walk on rock as much as possible. Many fragile alpine plants cannot endure trampling. Also, soil becomes compacted and sticks to a dog’s paws, accelerating erosion.

Keeping Your Dog 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. Before committing to a route, consider the following:

  • Fire towers. These historic lookouts with their steep, narrow stairs and scaffolding-like construction disorient dogs. Most cannot make it to the cabin, and if they do, the space is extremely cramped inside for a nervous canine. If a fire tower is your destination, leave your dog at the base of it, held by a friend or tied to a tree or rock away from the steps.
  • Cliffs. A dog won’t intentionally jump off a cliff, but it will sense your excitement or trepidation and get excited itself, often bounding ahead. To avoid any scares—or worse—be sure to put your dog on a leash and keep it calm and close when approaching cliffs.
  • Ladders. Avoid hiking trails with ladders. The taller the ladder is, the lower the odds of your dog finding an alternate route, and it is dangerous to both you and your dog to carry it up or down a ladder.
  • Water. Dogs are susceptible to waterborne illnesses. Technically, you should discourage your dog from drinking water along the trail. Yeah, right: Only the most prudish dogs will ignore a babbling brook, and most will jump into a swampy pool of stagnant algae if they are hot and thirsty enough. If possible, guide your dog to clear, running water, and always carry water and a water dish for your dog. Streams frequently dry up, and dogs are not allowed around water sources for shelters and campsites.
10 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. Note: A number of state parks require dogs to be on a leash that is 10 feet or shorter.
  • Dog brush and/or comb to keep your dog’s fur deburred. On some long-haired breeds, if their fur gets knotted enough, they will refuse to move another inch even if they are 10 miles from the car.
  • Snug collar with your telephone number and your dog’s name, rabies tag, and dog license on it.
  • Dog booties to protect sensitive dog paws or if your dog cuts a pad or tears a claw.
  • Water: Carry at least a quart of water for your dog for every 3 miles you plan to hike, if there are no reliable water sources along the route.
  • Water dish
  • Dog food/snacks: Bring actual dog food and/or dog biscuits, which are nutritionally balanced (fewer carbs and more fat, protein) and easier for dogs to digest than human food.
  • Spare rope: Depending on what you carry for a leash, a spare rope is helpful for times when you need to tie your dog to a tree or another fixed object.
  • Plastic bags if your dog does its business anywhere above treeline, along a trail, or in a camping area, and you need to pack it out.
  • Dog first-aid kit: Basic components should include the following, most of which are available at larger pet supply stores, through your veterinarian, or at your local drug store:
    • Bandage scissors
    • Dog toenail clippers
    • Tweezers
    • Cleansers and disinfectants such as hydrogen peroxide and Betadine
    • Canine eyewash
    • Calamine lotion (for itchy bug bites)
    • Topical antibiotic ointments such as Bacitracin or Neomycin
    • Baking soda (for bee stings)
    • Vaseline
    • Stop bleeding powder
    • Enteric-coated aspirin or Bufferin
    • Imodium A-D
    • Pepto-Bismol
    • Dressings and bandages
    • Gauze pads (4 inches square)
    • Gauze roll
    • Non-stick pads
    • Adhesive tape (1- and 2-inch rolls)
    • Muzzle: Even the most passive dog can get snappy when stressed due to injury

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Lisa Densmore Ballard

Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer, photographer, and television producer/host, as well as a long-time member of AMC. She is the author of seven books, including Hiking the White Mountains (FalconGuides) and Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books).