Pro Tips: Is Your Dog Ready to Hike?

Cindy Dunican, e-commerce merchant for Orvis Dogs, poses with Addy atop Mount Mansfield, in northern Vermont.
Photo courtesy Cindy Dunican

The woods are inviting this time of year. And there’s no better way to enjoy the fall colors and that refreshing nip in the air than hiking with your dog at your side. But not all dogs are equally equipped for long treks. Before you hit the trail with your dog, determine whether he can handle the unique rigors of the backcountry. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating your dog’s hike-worthiness.

  • Fitness — Hiking is not a walk in the park. You and your dog will likely face rough, uneven terrain, and steep ascents and descents. Your dog should have an established regimen of regular exercise before you set off on a strenuous hike. If he fatigues easily or is a bit of a couch potato, slowly increase his activity level until he has the stamina for a long hike.
  • Age — Nursing puppies are definitely too young for a hike. Older puppies can handle hikes, but avoid highly challenging hikes with steep ascents and descents that may be problematic for developing joints. Senior dogs can benefit from gentle hikes, but it’s best to get the go-ahead from your veterinarian first.
  • Size — Healthy dogs weighing 40 lbs. or more should be able to hike safely with you. Healthy, smaller dogs can also hike, but take a shorter trail—your little dog will have to take many more steps than a larger dog covering the same distance.
  • Training — It’s crucial your dog respond to these basic obedience commands without fail before hiking: heel, sit, stay, come, and give. Especially if you allow your dog to hike off-leash, these commands will protect him from his natural instinct to give chase to wild animals and eat dangerous plants off the forest floor.
  • Socialization — Among other things, socializing your dog teaches him to stay calm when faced with new and unexpected experiences. Trails through the woods are filled with exciting new sights, sounds and scents, and you are likely to run into other hikers and their canine companions on the trail. If your dog is aggressive or routinely barks at noises or strange people and dogs, he should skip the hike or risk ruining the peace and beauty of nature for you and everyone else.

Even if your dog isn’t trail-ready, you can still enjoy autumn’s display together. Most county, state, and national parks have short, flat trails intended for those who can’t manage tougher terrain. And if it’s appropriate for your dog, take this opportunity to start a training program so you can definitely enjoy the trails together come next fall.

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