Dogs have always played a key role in my family ever since I was a young boy. I remember old Daisy, a sweet beagle who helped raise me during my elementary school years. As a teenager living in north central Maryland, I fondly remember trouncing through the woods and fields with my pals Lady and Rebel.
Today, in a home barely large enough to hold all the people living there, we house three dogs who help break in any new furniture that is purchased. All my dogs have had their own unique personalities and characteristics. I’ve had lazy house pets, vicious guard dogs, mischievous playmates and proud show dogs.
But I only had one hiking companion — a dog with an unquenchable desire to be on the trails. She not only loved the hike, but she also knew how to hike and how to follow the unwritten rules of the trails. We called her Boots, a name given to her as a young pup because she loved sleeping inside my hiking boot — a sign of things to come.
Many avid hikers of our wonderful trails take their dogs along and many hikers wish to do so. Being able to take your dog hiking takes some serious thought and preparation. Not all dogs are trail dogs, even after attempts to train them to be so.
I have owned nearly a dozen dogs over the years and out of the entire group, I only had one that I would ever take on a backpacking trip. A dog can be a wonderful companion on the trail, but an untrained or incapable dog can be a danger to itself, you or others on the trail.
Something else we need to understand and accept: Not everyone loves dogs. Not every hiker loves dogs. The primary rule of hiking is that we must have a respect for the trail and for nature itself. Second to that is to have a proper respect for other hikers with whom we share nature. You may love the company of your pet, but if having your pet with you violates either of these basic rules you need to be willing to adapt or even reconsider.
For those of you who desire to train your dog as a trail companion, here are a few basic thoughts to consider:
Don’t start too soon. Nobody out there would ever take their toddler on a long hiking trip, yet many won’t think twice about attempting to take a puppy on the trail. Dogs need to have reasonably developed physiques to manage trail hiking to avoid hurting themselves. If you’re not sure your dog is ready, check with your veterinarian for advice.
We started Boots out as a pup to acquaint her with the hiking environment, but she traveled with me in a specially fashioned backpack. We would let her out to stretch her legs and sniff out the wild, but she was carried for most of the hike.
When you do start your dog hiking, ease her into the regimen. Begin with short hikes of an hour or so on trails of easy to moderate difficulty. This slow approach will allow the dog’s paws to toughen up and prepare her for those longer more difficult backpacking trips. Most dogs will clearly communicate to you their progress with the energy level they exhibit.
Obedience training isn’t limited to just while on the trail. If a dog is not properly trained to your voice commands you should not be taking her on hikes.
Some good advice from “Backpacker Magazine” includes “Rules and routines should be the same on the trail as they are at home. ‘No’ should mean ‘no’ anywhere.”
Having your dog on a leash is not enough. You must also need to be able to have that leashed dog remain calm as others pass you by on the trail. If your pet cannot be respectful and quiet as others pass by, you risk having an unwanted guest on that trail.
It is essential that you educate yourself to the various trail regulations for the places that you plan to hike. Many national parks do not allow even leashed dogs on the trails. Leashes are mandatory on most other trails. This would include national forest trails and state parks. Rules will vary greatly, so it is wise to check first.
There is more to discuss on this topic and more to consider. Fortunately, there are lots of great resources online to help you train your dog properly for the trail. Check them out.
I truly wish you the best of luck. Some of my fondest memories came from my hiking adventures with my companion Boots. I hope you get the chance to experience the same pleasures.