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Posted on 08-02-2016

I like to think of myself as a dog person.  I have three of my own and take care of dogs everyday in my profession.   When I traveled to the Pacific Coast several years ago I saw dogs every place I went.  I’d always wanted to take my dog to the beach. Now I was in an area that catered to dogs and dog people.  Every store had guidebooks on hiking with your dog.  I felt so guilty – my two Labrador Retrievers were sitting home in Texas.  I really wanted to take another trip at a later date by car so my dogs could join me.

Unfortunately one of those dogs is no longer with me.   But I have started to make a concerted effort to involve my Labrador Retriever, Freya, when my husband and I hike now.  He seemed a little skeptical the first time I insisted on taking her along.  And yes, she did hold us back.  We were experienced hikers used to several miles on rough terrain in unpleasant heat.  Freya thought we were just going for a walk.  We cut the hike short that day.  Her feet were hot and she was slow moving.  I didn’t complain too much, I was hot too.

For anyone wanting to start hiking with their dog, the first piece of advice I would give is to remember that you had to train – so does your dog.  If you are an experienced hiker used to 8 to 10 miles a day but your dog is used to 1 to 2 mile walks around the neighborhood you need to take this into account when you first start hiking together.  She will need to build endurance just as you did when you started hiking.  Terrain and elevation changes make for more challenge than a leisurely walk around the block. You should start by verifying that your dog is physically up to the challenge. Breed of dog is not as important as the health of the dog.  When we are on the trail we see people with Chihuahuas, Bassett Hounds, Retrievers, Mixed breeds, you name it.  It is best to start with a wellness check from your veterinarian to look for any underlying problems.  Now ask yourself these questions-is your pet used to going on walks?  How far?  How does he hold up?  Start increasing your time on walks to come closer to your goal.  Freya was in adequate shape but each hike makes her stronger.  She still has not made 8 miles with us though. And do remember that some of the smaller breeds or shorter legged breeds may not be able to hike as far as some of the other breeds.

 Other factors to take into consideration are potential pests you may encounter.  In South Texas snakes are always a possible inhabitant of the trail.  Remember your furry friend is closer to the ground than you are and likely to put a nose someplace that an inhabitant of the trail may live. The rattlesnake vaccine is a good option for dogs hiking in brushy or rocky areas.  Rabies vaccine is a state law but also just basic safety. Flea and tick products are also important to apply before you venture into the outdoors and your veterinarian can help advise the best product for your pet. Your veterinarian can also recommend what you may want to pack for a Fido first aid kit.

Before venturing out on the trail it is important to check if the park you are visiting allows pets and what their individual rules are.  Sometimes this is our deciding factor as to where we are going for the day or if Freya gets to join us.  For instance some parks such as Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glendale allow pets on front trails but not in the back country.  Most National Parks do not allow dogs on trails.  Also most areas require dogs to be on a 6 foot or shorter leash the whole time. I have a hands free leash that I really like to use when hiking.  I can wear it around my wrist or strapped to a backpack strap or belt loop.  It make it easier to follow the rules and still have the freedom to use hiking sticks if needed.  Hiking etiquette requires your dog to also remain calm and well behaved if other hikers, animals, or cyclist pass you on the trail.

Weather is such an important factor when venturing out on the trail.  You need to be prepared for anything and just as with us weather plays an important role in safety precautions for your pet while hiking.  If you are venturing to a cold weather area, there are coats and vests made to help keep your pet warm and dry.  In this area the biggest issue is always heat.  And heat stroke is something we see far too often in dogs that are left at home so active dogs are definitely at risk.  It is important to plan your hike so it does not occur at the hottest time of the day.  My husband and I have found ourselves out on the trail in the hottest part of the day more times than I like to admit.  It is important to plan your hike in the cooler hours and to take proper precautions for you and your pet. Remember your dog is wearing a fur coat and has no sweat glands.  The first time Freya ventured out with a pack was during a warm part of the year.  We quickly realized that the pack was not the right material for the time of year she was hiking as it contributed to her overall heat. So we got to carry it that day.  Water becomes very important for heat control.  It can be used to wet your pet down to help with evaporative cooling.  There is even a vest that is made for dogs that can be soaked in water so that as the water evaporates it will dissipate heat.  You want to be sure that your pet has fresh water to drink just as you do to prevent dehydration and to be sure that he is not drinking contaminated water. It is important not to let your dog gorge on water and then be very active.  When a dog drinks rapidly they often inhale air at the same time.  Deep chested, large breed dogs are prone to a condition called bloat that can result in their stomach flipping if they drink or eat too fast and then run.  This is a life threatening emergency.

Do be sure to take plenty of water and snacks.   Humans burn many more calories when hiking and so does your pet.  Be sure when you stop that you have a container to offer fresh, treated water to your dog as well as a snack to replace calories and electrolytes.

Many hiking trails have very rocky terrain or large numbers of grass burrs.  I feel my boots are my most important hiking gear.  On occasion Freya will limp when on a hike.   Most often it is due to grass burrs.  When we remove them she is fine though my fingers are sore.  One day it was evident she was struggling due to the heat on the rocky 

terrain.  She would try to find grassy areas until we could get her back to the truck.  There are a variety of boots made for dogs and many dogs learn to love their boots.   They can be very helpful for hot surfaces and cold or slippery as well.  It is good to try them around the house for small time periods to allow and adjustment time before heading out on the trail.

Now that you have your trail, your gear, and your pet it’s time to hit the outdoors.  But do you want your dog to share in carrying some of the supplies?   I mentioned Freya’s pack earlier.  There are a variety of backpacks made for your furry friend.  In order to purchase the right pack you need to determine your dog’s size by measuring the circumference of your dog’s chest.  There should be a size that corresponds with this measurement.  You want the pack to be fitted tight enough that it does not slide off but loose enough that it does not limit your dog’s mobility and breathing.  In general, young and healthy dogs can carry up to 25% of their weight.   This can vary by as much as 10 to 15 % based on breed, age, and health status of the pet.  All packs are designed to evenly distribute the weight your pet carries.  But some features you may look for include visibility with reflectors, collapsible bowls, dividers, a top handle (which makes it easy to hang on to your dog if you’re crossing a shallow river or 

hiking near a ledge), and a pocket for a cooling insert.   Be sure to choose a pack that fits the climate you are hiking in.  Freya actually has two packs.  One is mostly mesh so that it is more comfortable and allows for more cooling during hot months.

All hikers know to follow the leave no trace principle when in the wilderness.  This is true with your pet as well.  Be sure to clean up after them and leave no trace. Freya carries her bags in her pack for us in case clean up is needed.

In the unlikely event that you become separated from your dog you want to be sure your pets’ tags have up to date contact information.  A microchip is great to have also in case your pet gets lost. With a microchip you know your pet still has identification even if his collar and tags are lost.

My pets are part of my family so I love being able to have adventures with them.  My husband and I find hiking together to be an important part of our relationship with each other.  Each time Freya joins us I feel it strengthens our bond with her as well.   Hiking with your pet is a great way to enjoy time with your pet and ensures you both reap physical benefits from exercise.  Being with your dog also helps to start conversation with other hikers even if they don’t have a pet with them.  This is even a way to entice your children to join you willingly on a hike! And you are more likely to explore the great outdoors if you have a companion to enjoy it with!  So now that you are suited up get out and enjoy the great outdoors with your best furry friend!

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