Hiking with your dog seems as natural as strolling with them around the neighborhood. Many people believe that dogs are naturally suited for outdoor adventures, and they can take their pup to a trail at the spur of the moment. That might be true in some cases. But, for the most part, dogs need to get into shape to hike. Just like humans, they must be prepared physically to handle the outdoor elements and the rigors of the trail.
Before you head to the woods with Rover this hiking season, follow these tips to ensure your pooch is trail-ready.
The Benefits of Hiking with Your Dog
If you’ve never hiked with a dog and you’re wondering whether it’s wise, consider the many positives. First, it offers many health benefits for both of you. No matter the distance or difficulty, hiking boosts stamina, strengthens bodies, and even prevents or reduces ailments in dogs as well as humans.
Dogs get bored, just like people. They may sit around the house all day waiting for you to come home from work or get tired of just walking the block every evening. Hiking helps alleviate boredom and can also help squelch destructive behaviors in dogs by letting out excessive energy.
Hiking is a great stimulus for dogs. They’re naturally curious, and hiking challenges them mentally. As their curiosity spurs them to investigate things along the trail, they’ll point out things you might have normally missed.
And then there is the bonding experience when you hike with your dog. Both of you will truly become best friends as you explore the wilds together.
The Important Vet Visit
Before you lace up the boots and put that harness on your dog, you should visit the vet for a checkup. You should already be doing this at least once a year, but there are a few things you must address before taking the dog on the trail. You want to make sure the dog doesn’t have any underlying health issues that could be a problem or cause serious health risks.
During the visit, inform the vet of your hiking plans. Share what type of hiking you will be doing (distances, types of terrain, etc.) and the general area you will be hiking in the most.
Also, ask your vet what preventative medications your dog should be on. The most common are medicines to prevent heartworm and ward off fleas and ticks. Even if your dog is already on such treatments, ask the vet if they would recommend any additional medications. There might be something extra you can do to make the hike safer and more comfortable for your dog. For example, you could inquire about methods to repel mosquitoes. Many human insect sprays contain permethrin, which, if used on dogs, can cause vomiting. Your vet can tell you the best treatments.
Also, ask the vet to check your pup’s bones and muscles for signs of weakness or other issues. In particular, very young puppies may not have developed enough to walk even the shortest of trails. Also, their immune system may not be able to cope with the great outdoors yet. Older dogs may be showing signs of arthritis, and large breed dogs may be developing hip dysplasia. Your vet will spot any problems and advise you on what your dog can handle on the trail.
A Basic Training Regimen
Whether you have a young puppy or a more mature dog, it’s a good idea to enroll them in a basic obedience class. The training will help your pet learn to socialize with other dogs and people and learn the basics that make for a great trail dog. If your dog knows the three basic commands—sit, stay, and come—and can respond to them reliably every time, you will avoid most issues you will encounter on the trail.
If it’s been a while since you both have been on the trail, or this is the first time your dog is hiking with you, start building their stamina and strength. Also, you might need to boost the dog’s confidence. It can be a big scary world out there for a dog who has never experienced a forest before.
Begin your training with a daily 20- to 30-minute walk, but make sure you bring them to different locations. Mixing things up will help get the dog get acclimated to a variety of experiences. This way, when you head to a new trail, your pup won’t be surprised and will be ready to explore.
After a week or two of these short walks, gradually increase the time and distance of walks until you’re ready to take to the trail. Linda and David Mullally, the authors of Best Dog Hikes Northern California, have an excellent regimen to get your dog up to speed in five weeks:
Weeks 1, 2, and 3: Morning and Evening
Warm-Up: 15- to 20-minute sniff and stroll
Cardio Workout: 10-minute brisk walk with no pit stops at the fire hydrant
Cool Down: 5-minute sniff and stroll
Week 4: Morning and Evening
Warm-Up: 15-minute sniff and stroll
Cardio Workout: 30-minute brisk walk—start to incorporate some hills or stair climbing, but be sure to stop for a couple of rest and water breaks
Cool Down: 10-minute sniff and stroll
Week 5: Morning and Evening
Warm-Up: 15-minute sniff and stroll
Cardio Workout: Do the same 30-minute brisk walk as outlined in Week 4, but add a longer walk at the end of the week of about 1.5 hours. Include some uphill work. The additional walk is about distance, not speed.
Cool Down: 10-minute sniff and stroll
Hydration and Heat
Just like you, dogs need to stay hydrated. Of course, the amount of water a dog needs depends on the size of the breed. Generally, dogs drink one ounce per pound per day, which means that a 30-pound dog will drink 30 ounces of water a day. For strenuous activities like hiking, bump it up to at least 1.5 ounces per pound per day.
You should take breaks every 15 to 30 minutes and offer your pup a drink. Remember, if you’re thirsty (or hungry or tired), then your dog is too. Take a break and refresh.
Whether you’re prepping for a hike or you’re on the trail, it’s crucial to know the warning signs that your dog is getting overheated. To prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, keep an eye out for any of the symptoms listed below. If you suspect something’s up, get your pup to shade, cool the dog in a nearby stream or pond, or pour water on them. Then, abandon your training or hike and get them home (or to a vet) as soon as possible. Here are signs of a possible heat injury:
Digging a hole in the soil and lying in it (it’s cooler there)
Small amounts of urine or none at all
Wobbly, uncoordinated walking
Increased body temperature
One last word about getting your dog ready for hiking. If your dog is new to hiking, before leaving the house, bring out your hiking gear one piece at a time and gently present them to your pup. You will be surprised, but some dogs are afraid of big, bulky hiking boots or they get frightened when their owner puts on a pack.
If you plan on doing any tent camping, pitch that tent in the backyard well in advance of your trip. Allow the dog to explore the area outside of the tent, and then gradually show your pup how to get in and relax. You may even want to camp in the backyard overnight to make the dog more comfortable. The flapping of the tent material could cause some stress in your four-legged friend.
When you’re working on your hiking regimen, the most important thing is to be patient. The first time you ventured into the outdoors, you were probably a little anxious and you needed someone to guide you. It’s no different for your dog. But, with proper training, your dog will quickly become an outdoor pro.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.