So you want to start to hike with your dog. Hiking with your dog can be a fascinating way to explore America's great outdoors from a canine perspective. Some things to consider:
Hiking can be a wonderful preventative for any number of physical and behavioral disorders. One in every three dogs is overweight and running up trails and leaping through arroyos is great exercise to help keep pounds off. Hiking can also relieve boredom in a dog's routine and calm dogs prone to destructive habits. And hiking with your dog strengthens the overall owner/dog bond.
Breed of Dog
All dogs enjoy the new scents and sights of a trail. But some dogs are better suited to hiking than others. If you don't as yet have a hiking companion, select a breed that matches your interests. Do you look forward to an entire afternoon's hiking? You'll need a dog bred to keep up with such a pace, such as a retriever or a spaniel. Is a half-hour enough walking for you? It may not be for an energetic dog like a border collie. If you already have a hiking friend, tailor your plans to his abilities.
Just like humans, dogs need to be acclimated to the task at hand. An inactive dog cannot be expected to bounce from the easy chair in the den to complete a 3-hour hike. You must also be physically able to restrain your dog if confronted with distractions on the trail (like a scampering squirrel or a pack of joggers). Have your dog checked by a veterinarian before significantly increasing her activity level.
Heat and sun do dogs no favors. With no sweat glands and only panting available to disperse body heat, dogs are much more susceptible to heat stroke than we are. Unusually rapid panting and/or a bright red tongue are signs of heat exhaustion in your pet. Always carry enough water for your hike. Even days that don't seem too warm can cause discomfort in dark-coated dogs if the sun is shining brightly. In the wintertime, temperatures at higher elevations can drop well below zero in only a few minutes. In cold weather, short-coated breeds may require additional attention.
If you are hiking in the mountains and you and your dog are not acclimated to the altitude, take it easy, and allow plenty of time for rest, so your bodies can get used to the thinner air up here.
The huge, ferocious bear ripping through a campsite tent in our imaginations most likely refers to the grizzly bear. These bears are long extinct in most places in the Continental United States, but we do have the considerably smaller black bear. This bear is notoriously shy and hikers can spend a lifetime in these woods and never see one. Even so, always check a ranger station for reported bear activity before starting a wilderness hike. If you see a black bear, stop and stay calm while keeping your dog close - bears do not like dogs. Do not shout and quiet your dog from barking. Do not run, you cannot outrun a bear and you don't want to look like prey. The bear will likely leave the area, but if not, talk in a low tone of voice and slowly back away keeping your dog by your side. If you decide to camp someplace, make sure to hang anything edible in a tree away from your tent at least 10 feet above the ground and 5 feet away from the tree trunk.
Rattlesnakes are found in every state in America. It is not a particularly aggressive animal but you should treat any rattlesnake with respect and keep your distance. A rattler's colors may vary but they are recognized by the namesake rattle on the tail and a diamond-shaped head. Unless cornered or teased by humans, a rattlesnake will crawl away and avoid striking. Avoid rocky areas, crevasses, caves, and areas where the ground cover (weed or grass) prevents you from seeing the ground. These are all places where snakes are likely to hang out.If you hear a nearby rattle, stop immediately and hold your dog back. Identify where the snake is and slowly back away. If you or your dog is bitten, do not panic. Put ice against the bite, tie a rope or piece of clothing around the leg above the wound (but not so tight you shut off blood circulation) and get to a hospital or veterinarian with as little physical movement as possible. In many cases a rattlesnake might give "dry bites" where no poison is injected, but you should always check with a doctor after a bite even if you feel fine or your dog looks fine. Keep in mind that snakes fill an important function in the ecosystem; without them we would drown in mice and other rodents, so there is no reason to harm them. If you hike where rattlesnakes are common you can look for the services of trainers who will get your dog "snake-broke" for life.
These elusive big cats are extremely shy and are rarely seen. Cougars are fearful of humans but dogs don't frighten them. Still, they might view smaller dogs as prey - one more reason to always keep your dog close on the trail.
Ticks can carry Lyme disease, HGE (Human Granulocytic Ehrlichiosis) and Babesiosis, all nasty stuff you want to avoid. To help combat,avoid deep grass and bushes. Tick repellant for you and your dog is a good idea, and always check your dog's fur carefully before heading home. Ticks can be hard to spot on dogs with dark or long fur, but a simple comb can reveal any intruders. If you or your dog gets bitten, immediately remove the tick. Use your fingers if you have to. Try to grab the tick as close to the head as possible and pull straight out. Do not apply any oil before or after removal. If any part of the tick remains, or if swelling/itching or other complications develop, contact your doctor/vet.
Other Trail Hazards
Dogs won't get poison ivy but they can transfer it to you. Some trails are littered with small pieces of broken glass that can slice a dog's paws. Nasty thorns and thistles can also blanket trails that we in shoes may never notice. Tumbleweeds are also very thorny and prickly in their natural state, and even more so when they are dried and blowing. They can stick in a dog's coat, and cut fingers as we try to extract them.
Surface water, including fast-flowing streams, is likely to be infested with a microscopic protozoa called Giardia, waiting to wreck havoc on a dog's (and human's) intestinal system. The most common symptom is crippling diarrhea. Algae, pollutants and contaminants can all be in streams, ponds and puddles. If possible, carry fresh water for your dog on the trail - your dog can even learn to drink happily from a squirt bottle.
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