Hiking Safely with Your Dog 101: The Essential Guide
–Guest blog by Haley Mills
Hiking has been a long-time hobby for myself and my significant other. We enjoy getting up early, packing lunch, and hitting one of the many trails that middle Tennessee has to offer. What we didn’t realize was how much more we would enjoy these adventures after we got our Aussie pup, Shiloh, about a year and a half ago. Since he was 3 months old, we have been training and preparing him for the outdoors, car rides, and off leash situations. Although it’s proven to be a challenging task at times, it has also been rewarding for all of us. After the first few trips, we are now able to take our dog with us even on challenging hikes. When he came along with us to Rainbow Falls, he was off leash most of the trip. He was so energetic, running through the creek and jumping around on the sides of cliffs near the waterfall. It was amazing to see how much he had grown mentally and how skilled he had become at navigating through nature. This experience proved to us the importance of what we have learned along the way through trial and error, a little help from the internet, and the knowledge fellow pet parents were willing to share.
Here are some of the best tips I’ve learned for hiking with your dog:
Choosing the Right Location
When preparing to go on a hike, the first thing I always do is log on to All Trails. They have both a website and a handy app. I love using All Trails because it provides key details and reviews for location specific hiking trails.This is important because it tells you where the trail is located, how long and/or strenuous, whether dogs are allowed on or off leash, and it provides reviews by date from real hikers. This information will give you a good idea of whether the trail you are looking into is safe and enjoyable for you and your dog. One of our favorite hiking spots around here is Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park in Manchester, TN. We love this location because it is dog friendly, there are plenty of watering holes and trails, and picnic spots, and miles of land to explore. We try to choose early mornings and weekdays to go hiking with Shiloh because it allows for more space and less human interactions along the way. However, it can be done even on weekends in peak season with the proper training and preparation.
Pre-hike Safety for Your Road Trip
Unless you live in the middle of a hiking trail (how lucky!) you will need to drive to and from your destination. Since keeping you and your dog(s) safe and protecting your car are important parts of hiking, I highly recommend two things: 1) using a dog seatbelt which protects both your dog and everyone else in your car. Shiloh’s hooks to his harness clip and keeps him from jumping into the front seat where he should not be… AND 2) a portable backseat cover is golden for protecting your car. It’s an absolute guarantee that Shiloh will end up in some type of water (or mud) and rather than wash out our vehicle every time, we can just remove the cover, wash it, and go about our day.
Equipment: Practice Makes Perfect
A few necessities when hiking with your dog include waste baggies to help preserve the beauty of the natural spaces you’ll be enjoying; a first aid kit in case anything goes wrong; a towel in case your pup ends up a wet mess; lots of fresh water and a collapsible water bowl to put it in; and possibly a life vest if you will be hiking along–or in–the water. The American Kennel Club shares tips for choosing a good dog life jacket, with recommendations for 4 particular jackets. Shiloh wears the second one from Zippy Paws, and luckily he doesn’t hate it.
Leashes and harnesses are also important. We use a retractable leash and a PetSafe back-clip harness. These allow him his freedom; he gets to lead the hike and we can pull him closer quickly if needed. Every dog and situation are different, so I do suggest going somewhere like Tractor Supply, or a local pet store that will allow your dog to try on for the best fit. Having a harness that fits well and is comfortable is key. We chose the back-clip harness for hiking because his life vest is made with a slot on the top where you can clip the leash. It fits right over his harness, and we don’t have to take it on and off for water adventures.
Once you have your equipment, you should test it out, make sure you know how to use it, and above all, to help your dog become comfortable in it. Before we took him to his first waterfall location, we practiced swimming with Shiloh a few times in the local river so that he would be well adjusted to being both in and out of his life jacket.
Pre-hike Training Will Save the Day
Once you have chosen an ideal hiking location and have decked out your car, you will want to work on some basic training and etiquette skills with your dog. Teaching them commands such as “leave it,” “come,” “stay,” and “sit” will help both of you tremendously. Working on human interactions, such as jumping up on people would also be a good idea before trusting your dog to do any off-leash hiking. It is crucial to teach your dog to maintain boundaries with others, even in outdoor spaces. It is also vital that they come on command in case any dangers arise and, of course, to prevent them from wandering off and getting lost. To encourage good behavior and to keep him close, we bring high-value treats–like bacon or something out of the ordinary–that we know Shiloh would drop everything for to come grab from our hands, even when distracted by a human or animal along the trail. The Modern Dog Trainer shares a list of the top 7 high value training treats to consider.
Dogs Love and Need Snacks, Too
As I’m sure you know, food is very important to your dog. Rigorous exercise makes us all hungry, so we tend to pack a snack for hikes between 1-3 hours, and add a lunch for anything over 3 hours. It’s essential to keep their energy levels up, especially if they will be swimming and playing along the trail.
Hydration Hydration Hydration
Active dogs can easily get dehydrated while running and playing. If there will not be a guaranteed clean source of water on the hike, it is vital to pack enough water so that your dog stays hydrated. We usually take an extra water bottle for him, as well as a portable dog bowl to dispense the water and food, as I mentioned above. The one that we use is Frisco Travel Collapsible Silicone Dog & Cat Bowl: it folds and zips up so that it is super lightweight, and it clips on to our backpack.
Note: Fresh water sources can contain dangerous parasites and diseases–including giardia, blue green algae, and leptospirosis. Some of these can be fatal. Our friends at PetMD share more information on protecting your pets here. Also, no matter how tempting it may be, never hike with your dog in extreme heat.
The benefits of spending time outdoors have been scientifically proven, both for humans and for our pets. It is also a great way to build a bond of trust between you and your dog, especially when you are prepared and hiking safely. I notice that each time, we trust Shiloh a little more and he exudes a sense of accomplishment and independence after navigating through the terrain. Witnessing the joy in our dog as he runs through the trails, sniffing and tracking, jumping in and out of the creek, so carefree and happy. It’s magic. Once you experience this, you will become addicted to the fun that can be had adventuring with your best bud!
Haley Mills and Shiloh
Haley Mills is a writer, a lover of animals, and dog mom to a wonderful Aussie Shepherd, Shiloh. She gets her inspiration and pet-related knowledge from her experiences with him, and from adventures with his furry friends around the neighborhood. As a Tennessee native, she has made it her mission to explore the many natural wonders of their area with hopes of bringing awareness to the benefits of enjoying and taking care of our great Earth.