The First Steps: How To Start To Hike With Your Dog

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You already walk your dog every evening, so you must be ready to start hiking with your dog as you travel this summer, right? Perhaps, but a deep-woods nature walk isn't always a stroll around the neighborhood block...

START WITH YOUR DOG

Before you plunge down any trail, make sure you tailor your plans to your dog's capabilities. Are you mapping out a 12-mile day hike that will tag the peaks of three mountains? Not all dogs are bred for that kind of long-term exertion. It is especially important not to overtax your dog on a hike because she will soldier on in an effort to please you and never let on to any pain.

Hiking can be a wonderful preventative for any number of physical and behavioral canine disorders and running up trails and leaping through streams is great exercise for that one in every three dogs that is overweight. But just like us, a dog used to being a couch potato can't be expected to easily complete a five-mile loop trail. Have your dog checked by a veterinarian before significantly increasing his activity level.

OUTFITTING YOUR DOG FOR A HIKE

Every canine hike should include such basics as identification tags (get one with your vet's phone number on it as well) and a bandanna that can help distinguish a dog from game in hunting season. If you are pushing off on a long hike with your dog there is no reason you should shoulder all the supplies.

Wearing a dog pack is no more obtrusive than wearing a collar. Introduce the pack by draping a towel over your dog's back around the house and then have her wear an empty pack on short walks. Progressively add crumpled newspapers and then bits of clothing. Fill the pack with treats and reward your dog from the stash. Soon your dog will associate the pack with an outdoor adventure and eagerly look forward to wearing it.

A dog can comfortably carry 25% of her body weight. Low density items such as food and poop bags are good choices to include in a dog pack. Ice cold bottles of water can cool your dog on hot days. Don't put anything in a pack that can break since you will soon see your dog banging into rocks and trees as he wiggles through tight spots on the trail. Seal items in plastic bags for when your dog jumps into a creek.

Always pack a "doggie first aid kit" that gives you quick access to gauze pads, cling-type bandagin tapes, topical wound disinfectant cream and tweezers. Also have a veterinarian's phone number handy.

LOW IMPACT HIKING WITH YOUR DOG

Every time you hike with your dog on the trail you are an ambassador for all dog owners. Some people you meet won't believe in your right to take dogs on a trail. Be friendly to all and make the best impression you can. Practice low impact hiking with your dog by:

  • packing out everything you pack in.
  • not leaving dog scat on the trail.
  • hiking only where dogs are allowed.
  • staying on the trail and not allowing your dog to trample vegetation.
  • not allowing your dog to chase wildlife.
  • stepping off the trail and waiting with your dog while horses and other hikers pass.
  • not allowing your dog to bark — people are enjoying the trail for serentity.

One of the best ways to practice low impact hiking is to use a leash. This will guarantee that your dog will not unnecessarily disturb the environment or other people — and keep her safe on the trail.

TRAIL HAZARDS

Dogs are naturally curious and left to their own devices will almost certainly stick a nose where it doesn't belong. Dogs can't get poison ivy but they can transfer it to you. Other nuisance plants include stinging nettle that lurks on the side of many trails and even the slightest brush will deliver troublesome needles into a dog's coat. Nasty thorns can also blanket trails that we in shoes may never notice. If your dog has tender paws, dog booties are available to prevent pads from cracking while trotting across rough surfaces. Used in winter, dog booties provide warmth and keep ice balls from forming between toe pads when hiking through snow.

Canine hikers, especially if you confine your adventures to well-trod paths, can spend a lifetime in the woods and encounter little more than deer and squirrels. The wildlife is there but the presence of a dog will keep most animals deeper in seclusion. Shy creatures such as rattlesnakes are found in every state in America. If your dog is bitten by a snake it won't be necessarily fatal but get him to a veterinarian with as little movement as possible as soon as possible.

A more likely meeting is with porcupines. They won't run from a dog and any encounter can wind up with your dog impaled by quills that will work into the skin and easily cause infection. Less dangerous, but equally distressing, is a rendevous with a skunk, another animal that feels comfortable standing up to a dog.

THE WEATHER AND YOUR DOG

Hot, humid summers do not do dogs any favors. With no sweat glands and only panting available to disperse body heat, dogs are much more susceptible to heat stroke than we are. Unusually rapid panting and/or a bright red tongue are signs of heat exhaustion in your pet. A good rule of thumb is to carry 8 ounces of water for every hour of planned hiking — your dog can even learn to drink happily from a squirt bottle. Beware of allowing her to drink too generously from surface water since even fast-flowing streams can be infested with a microscopic protozoa called Giardia, waiting to wreak havoc on your dog's intestinal system.

Some of your most rewarding hikes with your dog will be in the mountains where the weather can change in a moment's notice. It may be cooler at higher altitudes but the sun will burn more intensely. When hiking in extremes of temperature remember that a hike is not a race and rest often — for both your sake and your dog's.

WHERE CAN I HIKE WITH MY DOG?

While most hikers head first for America's National Parks, as a general rule, dogs in national parks are welcome only "anywhere a car can go." This means your dog can hike only along roadways and walk around parking lots. In most national parks dogs can also go in picnic areas and stay in campgrounds. If you are hiking in Canadian national parks, bring your dog along — there are few prohibitions against dogs there.

You will find National Monuments are a mixed bag for active dog owners. Some, like Dinosaur National Monument or White Sands National Monument, allow dogs on most trails while others, Devil's Tower or Cedar Breaks for instance, ban canine hikers from all trails.

National Forests, under the stewardship of the Department of Agriculture and not the Department of the Interior like national parks, offer the meatiest hiking opportunities for dog owners. Dogs are permitted on most national forest trails, although access can sometimes be remote. Many times national forest lands surround national parks so you can get your dog on a trail after being cooped up there. National Grasslands are cousins of national forests and you can expect to have your dog accompany you on your hike. Hiking opportunities are limited, however, as there typically aren't many trails in a national grassland.

National Recreation Areas, as the name implies, are managed to maximize public use - for humans and dogs. Many trails in national recreation areas are open to off-road vehicles, mountains bikes, and horses. These types of trails will invariably be open to dogs as well. You can expect to find good canine hikes in almost any national recreation area.

Dogs are seldom allowed on trails at National Seashores but happily most (the southeastern national seashores are an exception) allow dogs on the beach year-round. National Lakeshores are good bets for canine hikers as dogs are allowed on many trails in these parks along the Great Lakes.

National Historical Parks are hidden gems for canine hikers. There are few bans on dogs in national historical parks. In addition to learning a thing or two about American history, these parks often feature interesting hiking: the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania in Valley Forge Historical Park, the mountains of Harpers Ferry Historical Park, the wild Potomac River of the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park to name a few.

State Parks are always a good bet for canine hikes; California being the most critical exception. Dogs are not allowed on trails in California state parks. With spectacular state parks like Ricketts Glen in Pennsylvania, Hocking Hills in Ohio and Custer in South Dakota, your dog can vacation happily without the national parks.

So grab that leash and hit the trail! And have as much fun as your dog.