Maryann Mott, a freelance writer based in Fountain Hills, Arizona. She and her rescue dogs Kasey and Sasha (not Kerries), love to hike nearby desert trails.
Text Copyright the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2004. No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, Fall 2004, Volume 2, No. 2. To subscribe: http://www.akc.org
Photos Copyright Cindy Radamaker, 2003.
Exploring the great outdoors with your dog can be a blast-with a little research and prep work.
All breeds, regardless of size, can make great trail companions. From the sturdy West Highland White Terrier, with his weather-resistant coat, to the rambunctious Weimaraner, who loves a good romp.
Some breeds, though, are naturally better hikers than others, being bred for the outdoors, where they run through fields, forests, and streams.
A few breed clubs even offer backpacking titles. But these programs aren't for the faint of heart. The Siberian Husky Club of America, for example, awards two titles: Working Pack Dog (WPD), where dogs and owners hike a total of 40 miles; and Working Pack Dog Excellent (WPDX), that requires trekking a total of 160 miles.
There are many benefits to hiking with man's best friend. As most of us know, studies have shown that regular exercise improves your physical and mental health. And veterinarians agree that the same holds true for dogs. It's also a great way to spend quality time together.
"I think bringing your dog] can enrich your hiking experience and broaden your perspective of the natural world," explains Jeff Bolognese, co-founder of the K9 Trailblazers, a hiking club for dog owners in Washington, D.C. "You get to see how your dog perceives the great outdoors through scent and sound.''
Get in Shape Together
But before you grab the leash and head out the door, you'll first need to gather supplies, find a dog-friendly trail, and most importantly, get your pet into shape.
Avoid the weekend-warrior type of exercise program that's intense and long houred. Like people, pets need to gradually become conditioned to prevent injuries and build endurance says veterinarian Steven Marks, head of the small-animal medicine department at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine (UICVM) in Urbana.
"The cardiovascular system and musculoskeletal system respond better to slow introduction and gradual progression Of exercise," he says. "Animals performing strenuous exercise may be more likely to be injured when they are tired or approaching exhaustion."
With moderation, Marks says dogs of any age can start hiking. Healthy, normal-weight dogs who already walk one to three miles a day can immediately start to explore trails of the same distance.
Before attempting longer treks, though, gradually work up to the desired mileage. For example, if your goal is to hike five miles-and you both can already comfortably go three miles-start by walking 3.5 miles every day.
For the first 10 minutes walk slowly, allowing your dog eliminate and get warmed up. Then pick up the pace, stopping when necessary for breaks. Signs that your dog may be tired or overworked include excessive panting, difficulty keeping up, lameness, or reluctance to continue.
When you both can walk 3.5 miles without feeling exhausted, increase the distance by half a mile. Continue this routine until you've reached your goal.
Keep in mind that during the summer, sidewalks are like frying pans and can burn the pads of your dog's feet. Always check the surface temperature before going for a walk by placing your hand on the concrete or asphalt. It's best to exercise in the early morning or evening when temperatures are cooler. Also bring plenty of water for you and your do; to prevent dehydration.
Trails Good for Both of You
Once you and your furry friend have gotten into shape, finding a nearby trail to explore isn't hard to do. National Forests have more than 13 0,000 miles of trails throughout the country, and most can be used free of charge. National state, and county parks are also loaded with hiking trails, though some may charge an entrance fee.
It's wise to check with park staff ahead of time to find out the rules regarding dogs-failure to follow them could result in a fine.
Trail maps are available at ranger stations, or online at park web sites. Use them! Take note of the trail's length, designation, and elevation gain or loss, which is the number of feet of vertical rise or descent over the path's entire length. A 1,000 foot elevation gain is like walking one additional mile, say hiking enthusiasts.
The trail's designation tells you who is allowed to use it-horseback riders, offroad vehicle drivers, mountain bikers. If horses or bikes might frighten your pet, stick to areas earmarked for hikers only.
Reviewing a map will also alert you to obstacles on the trail, such as boulders, fast flowing rivers, and steep drops. Learn how to read a topographical
map, as well as a regular trail map. Any dog may have trouble
going over boulder fields or downed trees, but smaller or older dogs may find it impossible, so find out ahead of time what obstacles the trail holds preferably from someone who has seen it lately (such as a park ranger), because blown down trees, rockfalls, or landslides can change a trail quickly.
When hiking a trail for the first time, Bolognese will occasionally leave his 12 year-old dog, Katie, at home if he feels he doesn't have enough information about the path's difficulty. Going alone the first time allows him to assess the situation and decide whether his older dog can handle the terrain.
In general, taking your dog with you on a new trail shouldn't be a problem, as long as you use common sense. 'Know your limitations, your dog's limitations, and be prepared to modify your hiking route or plan if problems crop up," says Bolognese.
Another safety precaution is to keep your pet leashed at all times. In fact, many parks throughout the country require it.
"One of the primary reasons for the leash rule is it puts you in charge of the situation," explains Paul Marusich, park ranger at the McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. "It keeps your dog from running headlong into cactus, or from chasing wildlife."
Encounters with wildlife can injure, or even kill, your dog. Depending on where you live in the country, you may come across porcupines, skunks, bears, snakes, alligators, mountain lions, or coyotes. Equally dangerous are tiny insects that carry debilitating, potentially deadly, diseases. Protect your pet from mosquitoes (vectors of heartworm) as well as fleas and ticks (carriers of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ehrlichiosis) by getting the appropriate preventive medication from your veterinarian, and checking your pet after the hike.
Before hitting the trail, you'll also need to gather the right supplies. The items you should bring depends on the time of year and the length of the hike. For day trips in mild temperatures, Bolognese suggests the following: map, compass, flashlight (with extra batteries), water (two quarts for you and your dog), bowl, dog treats, clean up bags, proof of vaccinations, first aid kit (human and dog), extra leash, identification tag, photo of dog (in case he gets lost), veterinarian contact information, bright orange vest or leash (during hunting season), and a signaling device (whistle, mirror, flares, or cell phone).
Pets can help carry some of the supplies in doggie saddle bags, which are like backpacks. They should only be placed on medium-sized and large breeds (over the shoulder blade area) and when fined, not weigh more than 15 percent of the dog's total body weight, says Gerald Pijanowski, a veterinarian at UICVM.
Once you're out on the trail, it's important to be considerate of other people. Bolognese says all too often parks prohibit dogs because owners allow them to run loose, bothering or scaring other hikers. "Remember, not everyone on the trail loves your dog as much as you do," he says. Instead, act as a canine ambassador. Keep your dog leashed, clean up after him, and step off the trail to allow other people and horses to pass. With leash in hand, exploring trails with your canine companion will give you both a lifetime of enjoyment.