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Tips for Hiking Safely with Your Dog(s)

 

It seems funny to me that I’m writing this on a day in July when the heat is expected to be record-breaking where I live in Central Pennsylvania. I haven’t hiked with my dogs in over a week, which is rare for us, because there is almost nothing I’d rather be doing than hiking with them. Being in nature and being with my dogs are the two things that I rely on to bring me joy and peace. 

For me, hiking with my dogs is about bonding and connecting with them. I never feel more relaxed than when I’m out in nature, and I think that it’s beneficial for my dogs to be with me when I’m in that stress-free state of mind. I am more present when I hike with them than at any other time (with the exception of training activities). For the dogs, hiking is quality time with their people. But it’s also time for sniffing–they take in and share information (often through the exchange of what some call “pee-mail”) about every place we go. Sniffing is a beneficial form of mental stimulation for dogs. And, of course, like us, dogs need physical exercise too. 

I would not be a hiker, and indeed I wouldn’t be a 365-Miler, if not for my dogs. In 2016, I was a couch potato with two Australian Shepherds (Odin and Granite) who needed lots of physical and mental stimulation. I was pretty good at meeting their enrichment needs, but I was relying on them to meet their own physical needs in our large fenced yard through wrestling and chasing each other. That spring, I joined a dog-walking challenge and the boys and I started hiking with other dog walkers in the group. Later that year my husband Bill started hiking with us, and later still we added Taylor to our family. We’ve been hooked on hiking ever since.

If you’ve hiked with your best furry friend, then you know there is much to consider before you hit the trail! I’ve tried to mention many of the considerations here, though I don’t go into detail about everything. There is a lot of information available online, and of course you should talk to your vet before you begin hiking with your pet. 

No Dogs Allowed

Rule #1 in hiking with dogs: check to make sure dogs are allowed on the trails you’re planning to hike. If not, either leave Fido at home or look for a dog-friendly trail. This is a rule we can’t afford to break if we want to ensure that dogs remain welcome in hiking areas. 

Preventive Measures for Health

I live in Pennsylvania, where ticks are a major problem for humans and dogs. Two of my three dogs have been treated for Lyme disease, one of them despite receiving the annual Lyme booster and while we were using a commercial tick preventive. We inspect the dogs closely during and after every hike, and on a few occasions, we’ve removed dozens of ticks from each dog during a single hike. Ask ten people what the best way to prevent ticks is, and you’re sure to get ten different answers, and one person will swear by a method that has failed miserably for someone else. It’s important to be aware that you’re as likely to find ticks in the winter when temperatures climb above freezing as you are during other seasons, and that grassy areas and fallen leaves are hotspots for ticks. I’d love to be able to offer surefire advice about how to protect your dog from these horrible fiends, but my best suggestion is that you talk with your vet and figure out what works best for you and your dog. 

Got mosquitoes? Then your dog may be susceptible to heartworm. Talk to your vet about its prevalence in your area and whether your hiking buddy needs to be on heartworm prevention. Heartworm disease is fatal if untreated, and treatment is hard on the dog. Prevention is your best defense.

It’s snake season here in PA! If you’re worried about running into venomous snakes–we have rattlesnakes and copperheads here–consider positive reinforcement-based snake training for your dog. A reliable recall and a cue for staying close or walking directly behind you on the trail might be useful for avoiding snake bites as well.

Before hitting the trail with your pups, consider whether their age, physical condition, and abilities will allow them to successfully navigate the terrain and the distance of your planned hike. If you’re hiking in particularly cold or hot conditions, or on rough terrain, consider whether boots or an application of a wax treatment might be needed to protect your dog’s feet. Positive reinforcement is a great way to teach your dog to accept boots, but it may take time to get them acclimated.

Trail Etiquette

To leash or not to leash? There are a number of things to consider when you’re deciding whether to let your dog hike off-leash. Some of them are as follows:

  • The rules/laws of the area in which you’re hiking
  • Ensuring the safety of wildlife and fragile ecosystems 
  • Other hikers (I’d strongly recommend that you assume people don’t want to interact with your dog unless and until they ask to interact with your dog)–keep in mind that there are people who fear or dislike dogs, and they have a right to hike without being confronted by a dog, friendly or otherwise
  • Conversely, if your dog isn’t crazy about people other than you, PLEASE be an advocate for her/him! We don’t expect people to like everyone, so why do expect that dogs will?
  • Other dogs–your dog may be friendly, but not every dog on the trail is. NEVER let your dog approach an unknown dog without getting permission from the other dog’s handler.
  • The reliability of your dog’s recall. Is it reliable enough that they will come when called if there is an S-Q-U-I-R-R-E-L in sight. (If I don’t spell it, Granite will start racing around looking for it.) What if there’s a dead possum on the trail. Will your dog leave it and come back to you when you call?
  • Dangerous “foods”–watch what your dog eats on the trail. 
    • Toxic plants
    • Litter (including gum and candy)
    • Poop (an unsavory snack for many reasons, and in some cases, deadly…watch out for horse poop, which may contain medications like ivermectin) 
    • And do you really want your dog eating another dog’s vomit? Or eating the entrails of that deer someone left behind during hunting season?

In addition to thinking about leashing or unleashing, etiquette for hiking politely with dogs includes moving aside and keeping your dog at a safe distance to allow other hikers to pass you on the trail. 

Of course you should also leave no trace. Carry poop bags, and take your dog’s poop away with you. If you leave it on the side of the trail, don’t forget to pick it up on your way out. And if your plans change and you take a different route, be sure to go back to collect your poop bag anyway! 

One last thing. Many of us go to the woods for peace and serenity. Barking dogs can disrupt that experience. Just saying. 

Preparation

Regardless of the time of year, you should always bring water and a collapsible bowl for your furry friend. Your dog will definitely need more water when the weather is hot, and it’s never a good idea to assume you’ll find water sources on the trail. If your dog will be drinking water while you’re hiking, ask your vet about leptospirosis and whether the vaccine is right for your dog.

I’m not hiking with my dogs right now because it’s simply too hot for them. Dogs are more susceptible to the effects of hot weather than humans are, and they may not as readily tolerate high temperatures and humidity. My dogs would much prefer to hike when it’s 20 degrees F than when it’s 80 degrees F. When it’s hot out, we focus on cool, early morning hikes, and we look for places with a water source that allows the dogs to take a dip and cool off. I’m also careful about winter hiking if temperatures and wind result in dangerous conditions.

Consider bringing treats or kibble to replenish your dog’s energy, especially on longer hikes or backpacking trips. I always bring snacks to reward my dogs for posing for photos, too. 

It’s a good idea to have your dog wear a collar with ID and rabies tags, particularly if you plan to allow her/him off-leash and you become separated from your dog, or in case of a mishap between dogs or your dog and a person on the trail. I carry my dogs’ current rabies certificates in a plastic bag in my backpack just in case I ever need to show proof of vaccination. 

My dogs have long, dense coats, and they are magnets for burrs, briars, seeds, and anything that can become tangled in fur. I carry a comb and a pair of scissors to remove the most pernicious offenders before they become too enmeshed in the fur, especially in late summer and fall. 

While I carry what my dogs need in my own pack, you may want to consider having your dog carry their dish, water, food, poop bags, and other needs. It’s important to properly train your dog to carry a well-fitting pack, starting with an empty pack and slowly building the weight. 

Talk to your vet about whether it’s appropriate to have your puppy carry a pack with any weight. Come to think of it, talk to your vet about when/whether your puppy is ready to hike and for how long and how far! Please don’t assume that as long as your puppy can keep up with you, you’re not going too far!

Special Considerations

If you’re hiking during hunting season in a place where hiking is permitted, make sure you know the appropriate rules for hikers in hunting areas. In some locations, such as state game lands, here in Pennsylvania, failing to wear a certain amount of bright orange (or some other highly visible color) during hunting season can result in hikers being fined. When I hike with my dog during hunting season, my dogs and I are ALL wearing orange. It can be dangerous and illegal to permit dogs to run off-leash during hunting season in locations where hunting is permitted.

Consider carrying a first aid kit to deal with emergencies for your dog. There are first aid kits designed for dogs, but you can make your own, and it can include many of the same things you’d carry in your own kit. You may want to include Benadryl (for stings and bites – know how much is safe to give your dog – talk to your vet before giving your dog ANY medication, even if you saw an infographic on the web that says it’s OK!); tweezers; and flexible bandaging just to name a few things.

If you’re hiking at night, consider attaching a light to her/his collar and/or using a reflective collar and leash. 

Wherever you are, keep an eye out for broken glass, and periodically check paw pads for injuries or for thorns or glass between pads. 

Have a tiny dog and you’re not sure whether tiny dogs can hike? They can hike! 

Dogs and Hiking Photos

One of my very favorite things about hiking with my dogs is capturing the day and the scenery in photos. If you’ve seen some of my photos, you may notice that, at times, nobody is holding my dogs’ leashes. One of the most important things I’ve taught my dogs is a “stay” cue. They know that once photos are done, they’re going to receive cookies, and that helps. But I always check around to make sure I don’t see anything that might distract them and that there is nobody coming up behind or in front of us. I watch them very carefully to make sure I’m ready to grab a leash if I see any change in dog demeanor while I’m taking photos. 

My dogs know I like taking their photos, and I often find that when we come upon a photo-appropriate stump or boulder on the trail, the dogs–and especially Granite–will jump right up, turn around, sit, and pose. This makes my job easier! But I also have to be careful because Granite has attempted to jump on some pretty precarious perches, and I’m not interested in taking photos at the expense of my dogs’ safety. Just something to be aware of if you take frequent dog photos on your hikes. 

More Resources:

Hiking with dogs definitely requires some extra preparation and planning, a bit more consideration for others who share the trail, and possibly even some important training. But hiking with your furry friends can be one of the most rewarding activities for people who want to include their dogs in all that they do. 

If you are interested in additional information about hiking with dogs, you may find these articles particularly helpful.

AKC’s “Hiking with Dogs: Tips for Hitting the Trail” at https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/tips-for-hiking-with-your-dog/

American Hiking Society, “Hiking with Dogs” at https://americanhiking.org/resources/hiking-with-dogs/

Backpacker’s “How to Safely Hike, Camp, and Backpack With Your Dog” at https://www.backpacker.com/skills/the-manual-take-your-dog-hiking

REI’s “Hiking or Backpacking with Your Dog” at https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/hiking-dogs.html

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