"Most dogs are weekend warriors, like their owners," said Brookline, Mass. veterinarian Jay Jakubowski. "They are going to enjoy themselves immensely, but because they're having so much fun running back and forth and investigating the trail, they're likely to triple or even quadruple the mileage their human counterparts cover. The dog's owner has to act as the dog's common sense."
Jakubowski recommends mentioning to your vet during your pet's regular check-ups that you take your dog hiking. This alerts the vet to be aware of and to educate you as necessary about canine heart disease or arthritis, or intestinal problems associated with drinking contaminated water. Dogs off-leash are also at risk of injuring themselves by running off the trail and finding themselves in losing battles with sticks, thorns, or steep rock formations, or eating or drinking something they shouldn't. There is also the risk of dogs upsetting the local wildlife, such as attacking low-nesting birds or rabbit dens, or confronting fighting animals such as raccoons, skunks, or bears.
But in general, the chief concern for the trail is how will the family's Fido behave in unfamiliar surroundings, when his or her senses are being overwhelmed with data that resonate with canine instincts but weren't covered in obedience school?
"Any dog is going to challenge its training when faced with the distraction of open spaces, new smells, and other dogs and people," said Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a veterinary behavioral consultant in Brookline, Mass. and author of several books on canine care and training.
"You want to do alot of obedience work before you go off for a hike, and test how your dog behaves in a relatively safe environment, such as a park, before you go off on a trail. Most dogs, the first time they go somewhere unfamiliar, will stay with the pack. But eventually they get confident, and may start wandering off. You should maintain visual contact -- some dogs aren't good at tracking, and we shouldn't assume that they are. The most mild-mannered animal may take off on the scent of something and get separated."
A dog that tends to be aggressive or highly defensive of the pack in its home environment should not be taken off the leash even on an uncrowded hiking trail, as the unfamiliar environment is likely to cause those aggressive instincts to resurface, Schwartz said. "That goes for little dogs as well as big dogs; little dogs often don't receive the same attention to discipline that big dogs get."
If you do have an aggressive dog but you still want his or her companionship on the trail, Schwartz suggests a basket muzzle, which allows the dog to pant, but serves as a visual warning to others to not approach your dog.
Other tips to minimize potential conflicts include putting the dog into a sit or a down-stay when another group approaches. This teaches the dog to stay with your particular pack and teaches the dog that it doesn't have to defend you.
"Dogs need to know how to behave in new situations such as hiking; if you don't tell them what to do, they'll make the decision and it usually will be one based on pack instincts. You need to clarify who's in charge," Schwartz said.
If you are a hiker who does not enjoy contact with dogs on the trails, rest assured that the vast majority of dogs ignore strangers completely, especially if it's far enough along in the hike for the dog to be too tired to do anything but pant at you with the only thought in its head being, "Do you have a car for me to ride in?" Avoiding eye contact (dogs perceive eye contact as a challenge) also will minimize the dog's notice of you.
Schwartz adds, "There are probably few things more enjoyable for dog-lovers than going for a walk with a dog. What's the point of having a pet if you don't have it with you as a companion for the things you enjoy doing? And from the dog's perspective, going for a hike is everything that it wants. It's an intellectual and physical challenge, it's a bonding experience for the pack, and it's an opportunity for the dog to get attention from its owner."
Canine first aid
- Don't overdo it. Remember that your dog will push himself or herself beyond his limits as an attempt to please you.
- If your dog carries a pack, check often for chafing. Build up weight in the pack slowly.
- Keep an eye on your dog for pad tears, tiny cuts on the bottom of his or her paws; this is particularly common when the dog has to cover alot of rocky, above-treeline terrain.
- Carry fresh water for your dog; a variety of light or collapsible dog bowls are available. Try to discourage him or her from drinking stagnant water and from eating trail refuse.
- Take precautionary measures against ticks before starting out on the trail.
- Carry lunch for your dog, even if the dog normally doesn't eat during the day. Sharing granola bars with your dog is fine; sharing chocolate can be lethal.
- Carry eye wash in your first aid kit; dogs who run through the woods and fields with their noses to the ground are at risk for getting things in their eyes. Carry benadryll in case of insect bites and swelling to the dog's face. Consult your veterinarian in advance for instructions on how much to give your dog in case it's needed.
- Keep an eye out for any symptoms of intestinal parasites. Symptoms can present as much as 7-10 days after the hike.
Your dog may be as prone to being stiff and sore the day after a hike as you are -- check with your veterinarian about which over-the-counter human pain relievers, and in what dosages, might be appropriate for your pet.