Hiking With Your Dog
Hiking with my dog, Jason, is one of my favorite things to do. His too. We love getting out in nature together, exploring new places and getting some good exercise. Colorado is such a wonderful state to hike in, with thousands of trails to meet everyone's preferences. But before you hit the trail for the first time, or the thousandth time, with your dog, there are a few things that you need to take into consideration.
First of all, why should you even take your dog hiking? Every dog needs adequate mental and physical activity and a hike provides both. Not only are they walking, running and climbing, but they are activating their brains by smelling new things, figuring out how to get over obstacles, practicing their commands, interacting with people, dogs and wildlife, hearing different sounds and seeing new sights. This combination wears your dog out and leaves them happy and less likely to express their energy in unwanted ways, such as jumping, digging, barking and chewing. Going on a hike is also a great time to practice their obedience. Does your dog obey you great when your at home with treats but as soon as you go somewhere else, they blow you off? It's a common issue. You should slowly work up to more distracting environments, like a hiking trail, but once your dog reaches that stage, it is important to work their commands in a variety of situations to generalize their training. For dogs that are fearful, hiking is a great way to build up their confidence. Even if your dog is older, socializing them in an appropriate way is essential to confidence building. Trails are great because there are rarely loud noises, they aren't enclosed which can make some dogs more anxious and when you do encounter other hikers, you can put as much space between you as needed to keep your dog relaxed. Over time that distance will shrink and you can start introducing more experiences to keep building your dogs confidence. If you have an aggressive or reactive dog, hiking is a good activity for similar reasons. Many cases of aggression and reactivity are rooted in anxiety and fear, so building your dog's confidence will help. As will plenty of exercise. Many owners of reactive and aggressive dogs don't enjoy taking their dogs out on walks or anywhere other than their own house because it's stressful, but that isolation will only make aggression and reactivity worse. Hiking allows you to get away from a lot of your dogs triggers and when you do encounter other people and dogs, you are able to give as much space as needed to prevent a reaction. Whatever your dogs personality and behavior, getting them out on a trail is good for them and for you.
Know Your Dog's Health (And Yours)
It's wise to make sure that your dog is healthy before you hit the trail. You don't want to find out your dog is not healthy enough for a hike while you are already on the trail. A quick trip to the vet for their annual exam will give you the peace of mind that your dog is ready to hit the trail. While you are there, you may want to talk to your vet about any additional vaccines or medications that they recommend for the area, in addition to their routine medications and vaccines. For example, your vet may, or may not, recommend leptospirosis vaccine, rattlesnake vaccine, heartworm preventative, flea and tick preventative, etc. If your dog does have some health issues, that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to completely write off hiking. Talk to your vet about their limitations and search for shorter, easier trails with lots of shade. There are so many trails that you will definitely be able to find one to fit you and your dogs needs. From flat, wheelchair accessible paths to steep mountain trails, there is something out there for you.
Know Your Dog's Ability (And Yours)
How long and hard of a trail are you and your dog actually able to do. Your husky is going to way out-hike you, but you are likely to be able to out-hike your pug. So choose a trail that fits who-ever has the lowest endurance. The last thing you want to happen is to be 2 miles out from your car and your dog decides that enough is enough. It can be long hike back if you have to carrying your dog. On the flip side, if your dog seems like they never run out of energy, try getting them a backpack to carry to help wear them out a little faster. I use a Ruffwear pack on Jason and am happy with it's durability and the fact that he is actually tired after a hike. Also research how technical the trail is. So if there are rock scrambles, narrow trails, or unmarked sections, you may want to save those for a dog-free hike or when you both are more experienced. Remember, you are getting out into nature to de-stress so you don't what to create a situation where you have to carefully guide your dog through a hazard while you are stressed out the whole time wondering if they are going to hurt themselves.
Teach Some Obedience
I firmly believe that trails should be open and welcoming to everyone no matter their experience level or how well trained their dog is. However, for safety and enjoyment reasons, I recommend that your dog at the very least has a decent sit-stay and recall. A sit-stay allows you to keep your dog calm around any other people, dogs or wildlife that you may encounter. A reliable recall ensures that if your dog gets loose, you have a way to get them back so they don't get lost or hurt, and you don't get lost or hurt trying to find them. Some other commands that I find useful for hiking are heel, place, wait and this way. Heel I use while in the parking lot at the trail head and when passing other dogs when I don't want them to meet. For place, I bring a towel or blanket to put down when we stop for lunch or a break and want to encourage Jason to rest. If he had his way, we would never stop. I use wait when going up or down rock scrambles or large steps. This way, he doesn't jump down or up when there isn't enough leash to allow it. I use this way when changing direction or when we step to the side of the trail to let others pass. Just think about the little things that would make your hike easier and more enjoyable and use a command to show your dog what you want them to do.
Bring Some Gear
You may have heard of the 10 essentials when it comes to hiking and camping. You need to bring some essentials for your dog as well. You can carry it in your backpack, or your dog can carry some or all of their own gear in a pack of their own. You should always bring them some water and a way to drink it, their leash (even if your dog will be off-leash most of the time), collar or harness with your contact info, poop bags, first aid supplies (you can share most of these with your dog), some food and some weather protection (sun, rain, cold). I will go into more depth about what I specifically bring hiking and camping with Jason in a future post. But in general, if you can cover each category, you will be set up for success on your hike!
Know Trail Etiquette
Trails are for everyone to use. And we should do our part to keep trails an inviting place for everyone, no matter their view on dogs. So following some basic trail etiquette will keep everyone happy and enjoying their hike. Please pick up after your dog and carry out their poop. Yes, it is biodegradable, but Colorado soil is poor and dry, especially in the mountains, so it doesn't break down quickly. In the meantime, diseases can easily spread between other dogs and wildlife. So protect other dogs and the wildlife and just pick it up. Not to mention it is pretty gross to see and smell for other hikers. I use one of the water bottle pockets on my backpack as a "poop pocket" and only put poop bags and other trash there. If you are concerned about the smell bring a sealable bag, to put your used poop bags in. Also please keep your dog on leash in parking lots, along roads, trail heads, crowded trails and any area where leash-laws are applicable. Not everyone wants to love on your dog, and some people purposefully choose places to hike where dogs are supposed to be on leash so that they don't deal with other people's dogs. It is also a safety issue. You don't want your dog to see a squirrel and dart off across the parking lot right in front of a car. When you are in an area where your dog can be off leash, please be mindful. Before you take your dog on an off-leash hike, make sure your dog has a reliable recall. Don't allow your dog to approach other hikers or dogs without permission, keep your dog within eyesight, and keep them from disturbing the wildlife.
With a little know-how and a little preparation, going on a hike with your dog can be an amazing experience. Not only is it fun, but it keeps your dog active, works out their brain, is good for socializing, and is a great training tool for anxious and reactive dogs. Colorado has tons of trails that are dog friendly so you will be able to find one that fits your fitness level, skill level and preferences. Happy hiking!!