by Diane Spicer
OK, I admit it.
I had high hopes for taking my dog hiking, in the form of a mixed breed shelter rescue named Cleo.
Maybe even unrealistic expectations about hiking with dogs.
After all, I didn't know her history, let alone her exact heritage or age.
Nevertheless, I was completely shocked the first time I took her out on the trail with me.
She was a bundle of energy, long legged and healthy.
She was definitely a puppy, but could there have been a bit of hidden 'fraidy cat in her?
She did just fine for the first half mile on the trail, but then a stream crossing came up.
When I glanced over my shoulder, there she was, sitting near the edge of the water.
I called encouragingly.
She just sat there looking at me.
"Huh" I thought. "She's tired already."
So I went back and got her, carried her over the water, and was astounded when she immediately squirmed and whined to be put down on the trail.
This happened at the next stream crossing, too: exuberant puppy energy disappeared in the face of water, and miraculously re-appeared after the stream was crossed (in my arms).
I'm not a rocket scientist (just a humble microbiologist), but it only took TWO MORE water barriers (a snow patch and a large mud puddle on the trail) to arrive at the conclusion that my little puppy was terrified of getting her feet wet.
That definitely put a dent in my enthusiasm for hiking with dogs.
Her feet issues were driven home even harder at puppy class the next week, when the instructor taught us how to trim toe nails.
And then I recalled an incident that had happened on the day we adopted her from the shelter.
We were getting to know her a bit by holding her, and then put her down on the floor - she refused to walk more than a few steps before wanting to be picked up again.
I'm still wondering what sort of traumas she endured before ending up in the shelter (she also hates brooms and will go out of her way to avoid them).
My personal story illustrates the danger of assumptions about hiking with dogs.
Take home message: Be sure you touch the dog's feet, and pretend to clip the nails, before seriously considering the dog as a hiking companion.
Foot trauma early in life does not go away!
And pay keen attention to how socialized the animal is.
You'll be meeting lots of strangers (human and canine) on the trail, and aggressive barking or lunging on the leash isn't going to win you any friends.
Sometimes antisocial behavior can be trained out of a dog, but not always.
You don't want to leave your buddy at home because s(h)e can't go along and get along, right? But sometimes hiking with dogs is not a good fit for the dog.
And then there are the dogs who are extremely uncomfortable in unfamiliar settings. They jump at every noise, they back off from "scary" encounters, and they just don't want to be on a hiking trail.
A few considerations for sizing up potential trail dogs:
Which breeds make good canine trail companions?
In the event of an accident or injury, you will need to give first aid to your hound.
If that idea gives you the heebie jeebies, this dog first aid site can get you all calmed down, with some training.
Sometimes hiking with dogs is not about the dogs at all - it may be the humans who do not understand how to be responsible trail companions.
Think about this for a minute with the following questions.
How tall are you? How tall is your dog?
Your view of the trail is WAY different than what your dog sees.
If it's a hot day, you are probably wearing a hat to keep the sun's rays off your head and out of your eyes.
Are you going to put a hat on your dog's head?
You can apply sunscreen to prevent UV radiation burns to yourself, but also to your canine hiking companion.
How many times have you gotten down on your hands and knees, wearing a heavy fur coat, to check out the trail temperature on a hot, sunny day?
Dogs dump excess heat by panting. Ever run into a dog with its tongue rolled out to maximum length?
New meaning to the term "hot dog"!
Use a cooling bandana like this one around your dog's neck to reduce the temperature (somewhat) for her.
Your feet are snug inside socks and boots or trail shoes.
How do you think your dog's paws feel after the first mile or two?
Keep your dog's toenails clipped short to avoid broken or cracked nails, which can lead to infection.
When you're thirsty, you can stop for a drink of water from your bottle.
When you're tired, you don't ask your dog for permission to stop.
Do you take steps to make your dog visible to others on the trail?
A startled dog and a startled stranger on the trail can be a bad combination.
These questions sum it all up:
Do you consider your dog's needs as you're packing up for a hike?
Are you responsive to trail conditions impacting your dog's well being?
Some dog owners simply ignore the fact that dogs get tired and scared and uncomfortable and perhaps frustrated on the trail, too.
One more potential source of unintended doggie trail abuse:
Who carries the dog's food and water - you or your dog?
Some breeds are born to work, other breeds may not have the physical stamina or strong back to lug around heavy water bottles (see link above).
If in doubt, ask your vet.
If you decide to purchase a doggie pack, be sure it fits snugly but is not overly restrictive of leg movements.
And be aware that some breeds love to roll in the mud (or brown substances much worse than mud).
Just in case you're wondering, Cleo no longer goes hiking with me.
She had too many issues to make her a safe and reliable hiking companion.
Can you imagine me carrying a 70 pound dog over every mud puddle???
Instead, she goes for long walks around the neighborhood.
But only on dry days :)
I'm very interested in your thoughts about whether or not it's ok to have dogs on established hiking trails, or in the back country.
Human behavior is very important for this issue.
If you hike with dogs, you probably have some opinions about these questions:
And if you don't hike with dogs, you probably have some ideas about this topic as well.
Chime in on this issue, and let's learn from each other about whether canine companionship is important to trail enjoyment.
The loyalty and love of a dog are priceless.
Saying good bye is difficult.
In memory of Cleo, here's a peek at some hiking dog photos that may make you smile.
Best Tips For Hiking With Dogs
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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