Hiking with Your Dog
A Really, Really Long Walk
At first glance, hiking with your dog may sound like a simple thing. It's like a really, really long walk, right? Well, more or less...but sometimes, different. If your dog is used to ambling along city streets, the steep, rocky terrain of your favorite hiking spot may be more than he's used to. Taking dogs hiking with you is fun, but like people, dogs need some preparation and conditioning, too. I've hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail with my rescued German shepherd dog, Shadow, and we've also hiked through parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, and in Virginia, the George Washington National Forest. I've gotten her to scramble after me over boulders, swim a creek when she couldn't walk on the stepping stones, and even follow me over a swaying rope bridge (think Indiana Jones with a canine!). It takes a bit of preparation and training to really enjoy a hike with your dog, but if your dog is your best friend, who else would you want to hike with?
Health and Safety First!
Before starting training and preparing for a hike with your dog, check with your dog's veterinarian to make sure there are no health problems that would keep your furry friend from accompanying you. Of course, your dog should be fit enough to walk several miles without pain or discomfort. And do I need to remind you that your dog should be vaccinated for rabies and other diseases? Make sure you dog has the proper vaccinations and is up to date on his flea and tick control program before venturing out into the wilderness.
I like to carry Shadow's vaccination certificate with me when I hike with her. I also make sure that her collar is secure and her identification tags are legible. The information on dog ID tags can wear off over time, especially if your dog is required to display multiple licenses or tags. As they rub together, the paint or markings can wear off. Checking them before heading out on your hike can mean the difference between a lost and found dog should your dog get away from you; if the information on the tag is legible, it is much easier to find the dog's owner.
Equipment for Hiking with Your Dog
One trick I've learned along the way is getting my dog to carry her own pack! When we first started day hikes with Shadow, I would pack all of her equipment into MY pack - her water and food bowl, a bag of dry dog food, and of course, plenty of water. With these saddlebags for dogs, your dog can carry her OWN pack.
Taking Your Dog on a Hike
It's important to check first to make sure that dogs are allowed on the trails you wish to hike. Most state park systems have websites, and you can check their "pet policy" online. Pet policies can vary by state and even by the park itself, so be sure to check the individual location where you wish to hike with your dog.
Eat lightly before hiking, and make sure your dog does the same. Just like people, dogs can get an upset stomach from strenuous exercise on a full stomach.
Carry plenty of fresh drinking water for both you and your pet. Don't rely upon streams or creeks for water as these can harbor unsafe bacteria.
A first aid kit, both for your and your pet, can make a minor mishap more bearable. When you leave the trail and head home to your campsite or cabin, be sure to check your dog for ticks, and check yourself, too. Wearing light clothing and long pants instead of shorts can prevent ticks from making contact.
Lastly, take along a clean towel or blanket for your dog's return trip. One day, my family took Shadow for a hike to a waterfall. We weren't expecting to have to cross the creek as often as we did, but we did have to cross several times, and on one occasion it was easier for Shadow to swim the creek than to walk along the stepping stones. I had one wet, muddy and very happy dog eager to lay down in the backseat of the car on the way home. Thankfully, we had her towel with us, and her blanket, too, so she had a place to lay down yet did not get the car dirty. By remembering little things like that, you can end the day on a happy note and not scolding your dog for tracking mud into the car.
Dog Training for a Hike
Here we are in training for a hike (cat optional - our neighbor's cat likes to walk with us!). Training your dog for hiking involves conditioning him to be fit enough to navigate uneven terrain and hills, as well as walk long distances. I begin our training with two mile walks, then add a mile each week. I also vary the terrain. Here we are walking along the road. The road has many steep grades and hills, which will condition both of us for a good trail hike in a few months. We also walk along a rail trail, an old railway line that has been converted into a hiking trail near our home. That trail is relatively flat with few inclines and a groomed dirt and gravel surface, but it is great for training for long distances.
Dog Leashes for Hiking
Some dogs are very obedient and will hike alongside their humans without a leash. If you choose to hike with your dog off-leash, be sure that the place where you are hiking allows this. Some state and national parks do not permit dogs at all; others require that they be on a leash at all time. You should also bring a leash with you just in case you need to leash up your dog quickly. Be sure that your dog is thoroughly trained to return when you call. It will only take one squirrel, deer or other wildlife to distract even the best-trained dog. If she runs off, will she come back to your call? It is easy for a dog to lose his sense of direction in a strange place after chasing a deer, fox or squirrel. Hiking with your dog on a leash can prevent the heartache of a lost pet.
If the terrain is relatively flat, your dog's regular leash may be sufficient for a hike. If you plan to hike over rough terrain, a longer leash may be necessary or a hands-free leash such as the kind people use when jogging or running with their dogs. These leashes are longer than the average leash and offer other features. The waist-tethers are great to keep your hands free for hiking poles or to hold onto branches, rocks or other things on the trail.
Which Dogs Should NOT Go Hiking?
Which dogs are not suitable for hiking companions? The following list will help you understand which dogs probably won't make good hiking companions.
- Aggressive dogs or dogs with a history of aggression towards people or other animals.
- Young dogs or puppies. They probably don't have the training they need, and their bodies may not be mature or strong enough for a long hike.
- Older dogs or dogs with joint or hip problems.
- Smaller breeds who will have trouble keeping up with you on rough, rocky terrain.
- Dogs who do not understand or respond to basic obedience training. Dogs should be able to sit, heel, stay and obey the 'leave it' command at minimum.
Learn More About Training a Dog for Hiking
Learn more about how to train your dog for hiking, backpacking or camping adventures.
- Cooper's Dog Training
This is a great website with lots of useful information on training your dog for hiking of backpacking.
This site offers great tips for preparedness, including first aid kits for dogs and other things to do before you venture out on the trail with your dog.
- Dog Training
This site features more training tips to help you prepare your dog for a hike.
Dog Training Resources
More resources for dog training, basic obedience training and more.