Hiking With Your Dog – Tips & Tricks for the Trail

An ancient bond is evoked when a human and dog walk together, especially through a wild environment. The dog’s keen sense of smell couples with the human’s keen eyesight, and they walk aware of one another’s movements, stopping to investigate interesting smells and sights along their way.

In our modern age, we can still conjure up the origins of our species’ symbiotic relationship with canines that resulted in the first domestication of animals on the planet over 14,000 years ago: hiking with dogs.

It truly is innately more interesting to hike with a dog – but only one trained well. A dog need not be strictly at your side on a leash, but he should be under your control. He most definitely should not be chasing wildlife or disrupting other hikers, nor should he be out of your sight most of the time. Not only will this result in the continued acceptance of dogs on trails, it will also enhance your own experience.

Countless times, my dog, Buddy, has pointed things out to me that I otherwise would never have noticed: a black snake curled up in a log, a huge brown centipede marching in my path, a bird’s nest hidden in the moss and rabbit trails (I have learned that he holds his posture a certain way when picking up the scent of rabbits). He can sense other people coming our way, and on rare occasions, he has even been suspicious of other hikers, making me more cautious.

He’s also casually walked up to my side, while we took a break trailside, and picked up a one-pound block of cheese and carried it off before I could notice it. My partner and I once endured a horrible night in our tent after I learned that feeding Buddy leftover seaweed was a very bad, gas-producing idea. He ignored me on a high ridge in Colorado when he ran into his first porcupine, and he once barreled right over the top of a huge rattlesnake that struck at his neck and came back with a mouthful of fir. He’s never harmed another animal, nor has he been injured, but this does illustrate that hiking with a dog has its own inherent risks and issues.

Where do you start?

My suggestion is to start hiking with your dog as early as you can. Start with a leash, practice basic obedience (carrying treats in your pocket to entice him), and do a lot of hiking together. Do not expect a young or inexperienced dog to do well on trail at first. Be realistic. It took me over a year of regular hiking before I ever let Buddy be off-leash. And, it wasn’t until he was well into his prime years (5 to 7 years old) that I felt he was mature enough to join me on long backpacking trips in the wilderness.

Also, take basic precautions for your dog’s well-being, such as tick prevention, heat awareness, foot protection like dog booties for long hikes or rough terrain, extra water just for the dog, appropriate pack weights and breaks – the same considerations you would require for yourself.

Lastly, it is in the best interest of everyone if you adhere to proper hiker etiquette. Don’t let your dog approach other hikers, campers, dogs and horses on the trails. Don’t let your dog foul water sources. Bury his on-trail and campsite waste just like you would your own, and make sure the dog is not interfering with animals you encounter.

There are so many guidelines for hiking with dogs, but I believe they are all common sense. The dog is an extension of you on the trail, not just another hiker with you. So, it comes down to you being in charge of that extension of yourself, and the result is a greatly enhanced enjoyment of the outdoors.

Karen Borski Somers is a native of Spring, Texas, and currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband and two daughters. An avid hiker and cyclist, she has logged more than 9,000 trail miles in 36 states, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Click here to read her journal concerning her journey on the 96-mile Lone Star Trail in Texas.

Buddy the hiking sheltie has logged 1,000 miles on trails in 20 U.S. states, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in every mountain range in the country. 

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