How to hike with your dog.
Hiking is a great warm weather activity you can enjoy with dogs of all sizes and breeds. They benefit not only from the exercise, but also from the bonding and training experience. Before traipsing into the great beyond, though, there are a few pointers worth observing for your pet's safety and to get the most from the experience.
As a rule, national parks tend to have strict rules governing pets and therefore aren't our first pick as a destination for dog hikes. Some parks are more accommodating than others. At a minimum, dogs must always be leashed, crated, or contained. Also, park superintendents have discretion to block off any areas they see fit, which often includes trails, beaches, buildings, and campgrounds. If you're planning on taking your dog anyway, then make sure to contact the park in advance to confirm what rules are in effect – petfriendlytravel.com offers good info as well.
National forests and state parks, on the other hand, tend to be less stringent and dogs are usually allowed to go off-leash when outside developed areas – so long as they are under their owner's control. This means your pup should know and obey basic commands, like heel, sit, down, and, most important, come. (If not, or if your dog is aggressive or could be a threat to others, it's your responsibility to take precautionary measures, not other visitors'.) Practice training your dog to listen to verbal commands on its regular walks at home using the leash and collar to bridge the gap of communication so the dog knows exactly what you are asking it to do.
For especially fit and disciplined pets, using a doggie backpack is a great option. Besides offering them a great workout, the pack can be utilitarian if you throw some treats and water bottles in there. The doggie backpack will also help to prevent a dog from running off in a full sprint, in case it has prey drive issues when encountering other dogs, squirrels, or wildlife.
While most dogs can boast of being in far better physical shape than their owners, they still can get soft in the mid-section. But unlike most humans, many will push themselves Rocky-style to extremes, to the point of injury or worse. So if your dog is new to hiking or exercise in general, be sure to hit the easier trails first and limit both time and strenuousness. Stick to shadier and smoother trails, as you don't want to overheat your pup or cause unnecessary wear and tear on his foot pads. Further, never take a dog on a hike in extreme conditions – during storms of any season, or very hot or cold weather – and be sure to hydrate and feed him in accordance with the extra energy he'll be using. Older dogs or ones with known health issues may not be able to go on hikes at all, unless they are confirmed to be in shape and spry (check with your vet first if you have any doubt, and limit the time and speed to the dog's pace).
Before heading out, be sure to consider what, if any, wildlife you might encounter and take adequate precautions – pepper spray for bear and bobcats, for instance. And be sure your dog is up-to-date on vaccinations and flea/tick medication. Following any outdoor time be sure to do an early check for ticks – for your and your dog's safety – and give him a bath to remove the dirt, burrs, and any other fun surprises he'll have picked up on the way.
'Men's Journal' contributor Taylor McKenna is the head trainer and a co-founder of The Confident Dog in Brooklyn, New York.