Hiking in the great outdoors with your dog sounds idyllic. You daydream of a cliffside sunset, you and your dog in silhouette gazing at the horizon. If the commercials are correct, once there’s dirt beneath your dog’s feet, he will instantly channel his wild ancestors and begin leaping over fallen logs and perching on boulders. Majestic.

Or maybe not.

Hiking with your dog is more than a long walk. Preparation is required on both ends of the leash. We know you prioritize your dog’s health and safety, so Fairfax Animal Hospital has compiled a list of five “Points of Preparation” to get you and your best friend ready to hit the trail safely.

#1: Physically prepare yourself and your pet

Hiking can be intense cardiovascular exercise, and the varied terrain provides challenges of instability requiring agility and balance. Before introducing any new physical activity, consult your dog’s veterinarian. A full physical exam is important to ensure your partner is healthy enough for the trail. Physical conditions such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, back issues, and obesity can limit your dog’s potential. 

If your dog is medically approved for hiking, introduce them gradually to longer walks. Then, reduce the duration and slowly introduce intense elements you may encounter on the trail, such as inclines, declines, changes in footing, and water crossings. As you ease your pet into hiking, when you raise one challenging element, decrease the other. The goal is slow, even strengthening and fitness. If you plan to introduce your dog to a backpack, start with an empty pack before adding small amounts of weight.

#2: Mentally prepare your pet

Before you set out, your dog needs a few skills that will help ensure your hiking team’s safety. Train at home using lots of positive reinforcement—food and toy rewards build consistent correct responses—and then train at increasingly more distracting locations. Hiking is no time to test your dog’s training. Key behaviors your dog must know include:

  • Come —  Your dog’s response should be instantaneous, because a reliable recall saves lives.
  • Stay — This command is invaluable in emergency situations.
  • Leash manners — Pulling, lunging, and straining on the leash are dangerous when sharing the trail with other hikers, dogs, horses, and wildlife. 
  • Leave/drop it — Far too many things on trails are appealing, but inappropriate, for your dog to pick up, eat, sniff, or roll on. 

#3: Accessorize your pet wisely

You are not the only one on the team who should get cool hiking gear. You should consider dog gear similar to that for human hikers—your dog’s items should be lightweight, compact, waterproof, and functional. Brightly colored items and reflective patches keep your dog safe in the dark. Items to consider include:

  • Dog backpack — A properly sized and fitted pack can be helpful on the trail. Healthy dogs can carry up to 25% of their body weight in a pack, but we recommend starting with 10%.
  • Dog boots — Paw pads are tough, but they’re no match for scrambling up rocky hillsides or dense wooded areas. Quality dog boots with rubber soles will prevent pad lacerations, punctures, and burns.
  • Leash — We always recommend that your pet be leashed, so use one that is sturdy but soft in your hand. Hands-free options that attach around the waist are popular and comfortable.
  • Muzzle — If your dog is injured, they will be scared and painful, and a muzzle will keep them, and you, safe. Make a game of acclimating your dog to the muzzle at home, which will eliminate additional fear if used in an emergency.
  • First aid kit Many great premade pet first aid kits are available. If your pet takes prescription medications, include several doses in the kit in case you get stranded.

#4: Show some manners to other hikers and pets

You won’t always be the only one out there, so learn proper trail etiquette:

  • When in doubt, step to the side of the trail, and yield to other hikers. 
  • Watch for off-leash dogs, and alert oncoming hikers if your dog is not dog-friendly.
  • Do not let your dog visit other people or animals, unless requested. 
  • Do not allow them to chase or flush wildlife.
  • Always yield to anyone with a horse, and ensure your dog is under control as they pass.

#5: Know the value of rest for your pet

As soon as you’ve completed your first “plus dog” hike, you will probably start planning the next, but allowing your dog time for rest is important. After physical activity like hiking, their bodies need time to repair and restore. Give your dog a few days off, then ease back into your pre-hike conditioning routine. Dedication to regular exercise will prevent weekend warrior syndrome, which makes your pet prone to injury.

We can’t guarantee that hiking with your dog will be as picture-perfect as your daydreams, but with the help of the Fairfax Veterinary Clinic team, some training, and careful planning, you’ll at least be ready for a selfie at the trailhead. Schedule an appointment today, and let us help you and your pet prepare for your next adventure.