When Karen Hsu’s 9-year-old dog, Maggie, senses an upcoming hike, the black lab’s tail goes wild.
“She gets so excited that it’s hard to corral her in the car,” says Hsu, a product developer in Bend, OR. "Once we’re on the trail, we have to struggle to keep up with her.”
But the struggle is worth it, Hsu says -- and experts agree. Hitting the trail is a great way to bond with your pet while you both enjoy the outdoors. Plus, dogs benefit from exercise and fresh air just like you, and they’re good company.
“Hiking is a great way for dogs to expend energy both physically and mentally,” says Kat Miller, PhD, a behaviorist at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). A tired dog tends to be well-behaved, so hiking and other types of exercise are great for high-energy hounds, she says.
Whether you hit the mountains, camp at the beach, or run with your pooch at the local park, safety should be a top priority.
Here are five ways to protect your pup on the trail.
1. Visit Your Vet
Before you set out on a big hike, rule out any health or joint problems. Age, size, breed, and other things can limit your dog’s agility.
A bouncy puppy may seem like a perfect running partner, but don’t take yours on a long-distance jaunt until their bones have finished growing, Miller says. That’s about 18 months for most breeds. And once your beloved pooch reaches their older, golden years, long walks can strain their joints.
Your vet will make sure your dog’s shots are up to date. They'll also get your pal on flea, tick, and heartworm prevention drugs. “Ticks can cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other diseases that pose a serious threat to your dog’s well-being, and some are a danger to humans, as well,” Miller says.
Many of the products that treat fleas also kill ticks and protect against breakouts. Ask your vet which is best for your furry friend.
2. Do Your Research
Check out the area you plan to visit in advance, and make sure it allows canines. Also, most hiking websites describe the climate, terrain, plants, and wildlife you’re likely to see on the trail.
Consider what’s best for your dog’s breed. Those with short noses might have trouble breathing during exercise, says animal behavior expert Andrea Arden, author of Barron’s Dog Training Bible. They’re also more likely to overheat.
If your pooch has a few extra pounds, a lot of exercise could be hard on their joints. Large dogs are more likely to have ligament injuries, arthritis, and hip dysplasia (meaning their hip didn’t form normally).
3. Start Slow
As active as your dog might be, they weren’t born ready-made for marathons. They need to build up their endurance just like you do. Start with short walks, and build up the intensity and pace.
“Dogs are so excited to spend time with their human buddy, they may push themselves too hard,” Arden says. “Know your dog’s boundaries, and recognize the signs that he needs a rest.”
4. Take a Leash
Want your pal to enjoy some time outside, but not on a leash? Make sure that they respond to commands and that there won’t be any unleashed dogs where you’re going.
“Keep a leash with you on hikes, even if you think you can rely on your dog to come when called,” Miller says. Fido might want to run up to children, circle around mountain bikers, or chase other animals.
“If you are wary of dogs, seeing a 70-pound black lab running toward you can be unnerving,” Hsu says.
Your best bet is to assume that every hiker you meet on the trail doesn’t like dogs until they prove otherwise. Always give hound-less hikers the right of way. Make your pet sit beside you, or put them on a leash while they pass.
If you’re in a wooded area, leave the extending leash at home. Otherwise, you might spend more time untangling it from branches and shrubs than enjoying your walk.
5. Bring the Right Gear
Some dogs, like those with thick or double coats (think malamutes and golden retrievers), are just fine outdoors in cold weather. But canines with thin coats or those that spend a lot of time inside might need a sweater or vest for warmth. There’s also a vest made to help keep your dog cool when it’s hot outside, Arden says.
If your pal is used to carpet and grass, walking on rocky ground can hurt their paws, and hot concrete can burn.
Hiking in the woods or on rough terrain? Cuts and scrapes are common. While such dangers can be hard to avoid, dog booties can help. “You can also rub nontoxic natural waxes into your dog’s paws to protect against snow and ice,” Miller says.
Other critical gear: water, snacks, and poop bags.
Pooches shouldn’t lap water from puddles, streams, rivers, and lakes, since they often contain harmful parasites and other toxins.
Bring enough food to keep up with your pet’s increased calorie needs, too. If you want your pup to carry some of the load, start by having them wear a pack around the house, then on short walks, and finally on long walks or runs. “While some dogs can carry as much as 25% of their weight, it is generally advisable not to go above 15%,” Arden says.
Here’s a list of must-haves for your hike:
- First-aid kit: Ask your vet to suggest items for your pet. Bandages, antiseptic, tweezers (or a tick pick), antibiotic cream, and a flashlight are a good start.
- ID: Make sure your dog wears a collar with identification, phone number, and rabies tags.
- Leash: Even if your pal walks well without one, keep a leash on hand. Other dogs, woodland creatures, and strong scents can lure them off course.
- Water bowl and water: Your buddy will need plenty of H2O during hikes and long runs.
- Dog food and treats: Reward good behavior. Bribery helps, too!
- Emergency phone numbers: Jot down the number for the closest emergency vet clinic, as well as your own vet’s number and an emergency contact.
- Picture of your pet: In case they get lost.
- Plastic bags: Leaving poop on the trail is a sure way to ruin a hike for others. Drop it into a bag, or bury it at least 6 inches deep.
Based on where you live, it may not be practical to take your pooch on a daily wilderness walk. That’s OK. The key, experts say, is getting out for a walk, even if it’s an “urban hike” around the neighborhood.
For dog owner Hsu, watching her furry pal Maggie enjoy a hike brings her great joy. “When she’s happy, I’m happy,” she says.