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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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: