April 2016 - HIKING & BACKPACKING
Hiking with Your Dog
By Alan Via
With an estimated 70 million dogs in the U.S. is it any wonder that we feel like there are almost as many dogs on the trails as there are human hikers? Before getting to that, let’s talk the basics of hiking with our canine companions.
Your Dog – If you’re thinking about getting a dog you hope to hike with, you can go the rescue route or use a reputable breeder. Think about the type of hiking you enjoy. For shorter, half-day hikes, almost any breed or mix is fine. As with any endurance sport, graduated workouts to build up strength are necessary. Older or overweight dogs need to be conditioned in the same way as their human counterparts. In snow, short legged dogs burn a lot more energy trying to keep up. Small dogs are quick and much less delicate than they look, but it takes a lot of effort for them to make big jumps up and down on steep, rocky terrain.
Many wonderful warm weather dogs are less suited to cold weather hiking. Pitbulls, pointers, and similar short fur types can be great warm weather trail companions but their body types make them more susceptible to conditions in the long, cold days of winter. Vets will tell you that dogs with short snouts labor in warm conditions as their inhaled air has less distance to cool. This can make them less suitable for longer distance summer hikes.
Essential Training – The two most important things you must do to get started are to socialize your dog at a young age and train for a reliable recall. Dogs bite out of fear. Puppies playing with other young dogs allow them to test bite pressure and the boundaries of play. The reaction of their playmates teaches them to understand what hurts. They should be exposed to all types of sights, sounds, experiences, people and places, so when they encounter someone or something along the trail their reaction is more likely to be neutral.
It doesn’t matter if your dog doesn’t give her paw, roll over or fetch. What does matter, especially if you intend to have her off lead, is a solid and dependable recall, no exceptions. It can save her life. Train her to immediately come to a loud voice command or whistle, rewarding with treats EVERY time at first.
“Don’t worry, he won’t bite!” is probably the most frequently uttered shout people hear as someone’s version of Marley is galloping down the trail towards a family with small children, or a person pinned to a tree with the wayward hound’s paws draped on their chests. If you can’t keep your dog close and under control around other hikers, then the dog needs to be on leash.
If you have an older dog, he may already do well hiking on leash. For people who want to invest the training time, for eventual off-leash hiking, I start off-leash in the woods walking with a puppy at the tender age of eight to nine weeks. At first, she’ll shadow me like I’m her mother, as we walk slowly over short distances. We slowly add distance as the puppy gains endurance and confidence. The puppy will soon want to increase the distance ahead and that’s the time for the trainer to stop in his tracks. The puppy will look back or return to the trainer. If she doesn’t come, try calling her name and start walking the other way. Reward these first big steps toward a solid recall with treats and praise; repeat, repeat, repeat, rewarding each time. You’re building the foundation for off leash walking every time you’re in the woods. Be certain there are no nearby hazards as you won’t be able to catch him as he grows faster.
First Aid, Safety and Protection
I suggest keeping all dogs in the car until the humans are ready to start hiking, and then on leash until on the trail to avoid traffic and keep them out of mischief, when they are excited to be heading into the woods.
Each of my packs has a small multitool, the version with needle nosed pliers. Among their uses are extracting slivers or pulling porcupine quills. The knife blade can be used to cut duct tape, one of the best materials for binding a splint. Carry a 30 to 50 ounce plastic bottle, filled with hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting in case the dog ingests something that has to come back up. Most vets now recommend that your dog receive anti-tick and heartworm medication year-round. A post hike body exam will often turn up unwanted hitchhikers. Lint rollers can be surprisingly effective.
Having the contact info of your vet and an emergency vet in your phone is good insurance. Be sure your dog’s collar has a tag with your name and phone number. The best protection in case of separation is to have your dog microchipped. The first thing the animal control officer, vet or shelter will do is wand the dog and find your contact information.
In areas frequented by bears, consider having your dog wear a bear bell in spring and early summer, and during big game hunting season add an orange vest.
Fuel and Hydration – Dogs need lots of water. When it’s hot look for trails that are near streams or bodies of water. If you don’t want to carry a few extra liters of water on a warm day, consider a doggie pack. These are daypacks for dogs and can hold food and water.
A couple of cautions – water takes up a lot of space and weight, something your dog will need to build up to carrying. Also, if you have a dog that likes to roll in malodorous matter, think about the fun of cleaning the dog pack after every hike.
I bring along a collapsible bowl for my dog, and I carry the extra water for her. If your dog frequently drinks from water she finds along the way, she may end up with some gastric upsets. Generally, they are not serious and don’t last long.
For meals and snacks, certain breeds with narrow, deep chests are more susceptible to a life threatening malady known as ‘bloat.’ Heavy exercise before or after eating can cause a stomach to flip, cutting off the passage of stomach gasses. It’s a little known but life threatening emergency so you may wish to feed your hiker dog small snacks along the trail and at the summit.
Where to Hike – Look at trail descriptions in guidebooks and online. The four-star trails will be crowded and should be avoided, or hiked midweek or with a very early start to minimize problems. Consider your dog’s weight, age and condition when assessing your hike. Steep, rocky terrain can be difficult for a dog who only wants to keep up with you. Other than jumping into water, dogs have only one way to cool off – panting and exposing their tongues to cool air. If your dog’s tongue is lolling, she is warm, needs a drink, shade, and a place to splash.
In assessing good warm weather hikes, trails that follow streams and are forested are best. In the Adirondacks, the Eastern High Peaks section requires dogs to be leashed on all trails but there are hundreds of great hikes with dogs outside of the crowded High Peaks. The Lake George Land Conservancy and Champlain Area Trails are two organizations that offer dozens of some of the least crowded and best for leashed dog hiking in the North Country.
Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has 17 preserves in the Capital Region. The Catskills have some of the best dog-friendly trails in our area if you avoid some of the steep, rocky terrain. Rochester Hollow is a gem as are the summer ski area mountain trails: Windham, Belleayre and Plattekill.
Wherever you decide to hike, consider yourself as an ambassador for dog owners. Keep your dog close and under control at all times so others can enjoy the woods as much as you and your dog are doing.
Alan Via is the author of “The Catskill 67: A Hiker’s Guide to the Catskill 100 Highest Peaks under 3,500ft.” Alan is working on two other hiking guidebooks, each with 100 hikes spread out over the Adirondacks and Catskills.