Hiking with dogs is a wonderful way to spend time in the outdoors. But how do we get our furry friends ready to be hiking companions? Depending on who you ask, you may get varying responses as to what makes a trail ready dog. For one person it could mean being ready for day hikes of a few hours and for another it could mean being out on the trail for days, which means being comfortable sleeping and eating in the woods. Being trail ready basically means that the dog can handle long walks, over different types of terrain, possibly wearing a pack.
A dog that is ready for the trail is a dog that is in good health, free of parasites and at a good weight. It is generally recommended that serious hiking not begin until a pup is old enough, or when the growth plates have closed. Until about 18 months of age, your pup’s bones are softer than an adult dog’s. Too much exercise (strenuous climbing, running or jumping) can actually be harmful. We all want to include our new family member on our hikes, but we must take care to make sure the activities are age-appropriate.
So then how do we start our young pups off enjoying the outdoors? How do we get them ready for the rigors of the trail? The key is to start off slowly. Short, positive experiences in the woods before longer, more demanding hikes. I don’t take young pups for extended neighborhood walks or hikes longer than a mile (and often not even that) until they have completed all of their vaccinations. They must be free of parasites and in good general health. A health check with your veterinarian is always a good idea before starting any sort of activity with your dog. You will want to make sure your pup is on a good flea and tick preventative and has basic leash walking skills. If you haven’t worked with your pup on a lead, I wouldn’t start the day you decide to take them on their first hike. Master some basic leash skills at home first and then work up to the outdoors.
Young pups may seem to have boundless energy, but they can tire quickly and will exert more energy navigating their first hike than they normally would hanging around at home, so keep it short. Just as you would a young child, be prepared to carry your pup. Even though it may appear your pup might not be particularly tired, this doesn’t mean their bones and joints are ready for long walks just yet. Particular care must be taken in areas where there are elevation changes, and steep and/or rocky trails that require a lot of climbing. You will need to carry your dog in these instances if they are not yet an adult. If you have a medium to large breed, a SAR (search and rescue) harness is quite helpful, as it can be worn and distributes your dog’s weight. If you have a smaller dog, there are specially made packs and carriers for this purpose. You can even use a jogging stroller for flatter areas.
What To Bring With You
For first time hikes, I normally go very light. I don’t intend on being out long, so a lightweight day pack with water, first aid kit (including a snake bite kit), poop bags, my cell phone, mace or animal spray deterrent, treats, snacks, toilet paper, trash bag, possibly lunch and a good supply of water are basically the essentials. For a more comprehensive look at what we pack for longer excursions, check out one of our previous posts here. I like to keep my hands as free as possible, so I like to wear a hiking belt. This way I can attach the dogs to me and still have my hands free for taking photos. I am currently using a Hurtta hiking belt. It has a quick release clip, room for poop bags, cell phone and can accommodate my water bottle.
Remi’s First Hike
Remi (our youngest pup) recently went out on her first hike. She is currently four months of age, so I used a simple slip lead and outfitted her with only a flea and tick collar (our woods are notorious for ticks) and regular everyday buckle collar. Her vaccinations are complete, she is on heart worm preventative and at her recent health check she was cleared for short walks. She did not wear a pack, as she is too young. The purpose for the outing was to just introduce her to hiking in the woods, and to expose her to the sights, sounds and smells. I usually use trail introductions pretty much as play sessions. I let the pup explore, sniff, check out the area. They always want to keep up with the big dogs, and by “keep up” I mean jump on and wrap them up in the leads, so it’s not always as enjoyable for the older ones when a new pup comes along. So on these first excursions, leads are usually twisted and tangled and we have a lot of stops and starts. When they get a bit older and closer in size, sometimes I use a coupler if the younger dog needs a bit of help staying focused and tangle-free. I like to try to keep a steady pace, so that there is less time for shenanigans that lead to tangling. Eventually they will get the idea that they are supposed to go forward, not in circles or zig zagging around the other dog(s). But until then, it’s a bit of a cluster. And that’s ok. It’s a learning experience.
Things are kept upbeat and light on the first outing, and I praise a lot when we can manage to move a few feet and things go smoothly. I want the first experience with hiking to be as pleasant as possible, so I try not to ask too awfully much. Remi seemed quite excited at the prospect of zipping around in a new place, with all the new smells. The area where I decided to take the dogs had been recently closed off due to storms. Some of the trail had been under water, and some of it was still blocked off due to downed trees. We enjoyed the part that was open and we had a pretty nice walk through the woods.
After Remi has a few initial introductions to the trail, we will begin to incorporate some obedience. Trail manners are important, as we are not always the only ones out there. Being able to take our dogs on our nature trails is a privilege, and we want to make sure we do everything in our power to respect this. Stay tuned for how we use obedience work in Remi’s continuing education on how to be a trail dog!