Mollie is an experienced hiker, despite having 4-inch legs. The Dachshund mix has been hitting the trails most of her life. “She will be going as hard at the end of a four-hour hike as the beginning,” Doug Gelbert says of his 4-year-old dog. “Of course, she will also be asleep in the back seat at the end before I can get the car started.” Mollie has lots of company. The Facebook group Hiking With Dogs, which Gelbert founded, has more than 32,000 members. “It’s a good place to see a lot of happy dogs,” says Gelbert, a Flat Rock, North Carolina, author who has published more than 20 guidebooks on hiking with dogs.
Indeed, a walk in the woods benefits canines and humans.
“Hiking and backpacking is a real quality-time bonding experience,” Linda Mullally says. A Carmel, California, resident and lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Mullally and her husband, David, have co-authored seven books on backpacking or hiking with dogs, with another due out this fall.
Exploring the backcountry with your dog can breed a new and deeper appreciation for nature. “It is a chance to observe the natural world through the dog’s senses,” Mullally says. “You notice plants and trees and birds that you would otherwise pass by. You pay more attention to the way a stream flows and what surrounds it. You soak up scenery at a slower pace every time you pause while your dog investigates a new smell.”
The sense of adventure and unpredictable nature of the trail make hiking with dogs an exciting and humbling learning experience. In his 30 years of hiking with dogs, Gelbert says he’s been lucky on trail, despite seeing bears, rattlesnakes and porcupines, which he calls “the most dangerous animal because they are easily caught by dogs with unhappy endings.”
But he remembers a blunder while hiking in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. “I managed to turn a simple 8-mile-loop hike into something over 20 thanks to trying shortcuts,” Gelbert recalls. “My dog never complained once.” Lesson: Stick to the trail, and be prepared for a hike that takes longer than anticipated.
Mullally, who has been hiking with dogs all over the United States and Canada, has seen her dogs chase two bear cubs up a tree with mother bear at the dogs’ heels. The worst experience, she says, was when her off-leash Siberian Husky mix, Shiloh, briefly disappeared and ate something that resulted in a serious pancreas condition — and a $10,000 vet bill. Lesson: Use a leash.
Despite the blunders, the thrill of hiking always brings them back to the trail. “Bad moods melt away watching the way they experience a trail with such joy,” Gelbert says of hiking with dogs. “They never come to the trail to get away from something or to work something out or other such human baggage. They are always having a good time, and that is infectious.”
“Any dog can be a trail dog,” says Gelbert, “so don’t be afraid to get started.” Before hiking with dogs, blaze a trail to your veterinarian’s office to evaluate your dog’s health and fitness level. Consider vaccination schedules and age (immune system and bones should be fully developed in young dogs; for older dogs, concerns include hip dysplasia and arthritis). Next, bone up on these skills:
Once you are ready, start with an easy trail that’s dog friendly. Many places, including most national parks, do not allow dogs on trails.
Here are some rules to live by when hiking with dogs:
Once your hike is over, there are still a few things you should do:
You don’t have to have a dog to hike with one. Libby Wile has been hiking with dogs for seven years through volunteer programs at her local animal shelters.
“Seeing a dog that was anxious or shy in the shelter really break out of their shell, wag their tail and enjoy a hike is the best trail experience,” says Wile, senior director of programs at the American Hiking Society in Silver Spring, Maryland. Through outreach and enrichment programs, such as the People and Animal Cardio Klub (P.A.C.K.) in the District of Columbia and Hiking Hounds in Asheville, North Carolina, volunteers take shelter dogs on weekly group hikes.
“The dogs get time away from the shelter, which can be a stressful environment,” Wile says. “They get exercise and a chance to be out in nature. They also get a chance to be social with the public and be exposed to and comfortable with things they might not be used to. When we arrive back to the shelter after a hike, the dogs are calm, tuckered out and ready to meet their forever family.” Wile benefits, too. “I get great joy out of seeing the dogs happy and eager to explore,” she says. “I also get an opportunity to connect with nature, get exercise and hang out with others that love dogs and hiking. These shelter programs are really a win-win for every person and animal involved.”
So now you’re ready to get out and go hiking with your dogs. What are some of the best dog-friendly hiking trails near you? Gelbert, whose latest book 500 Places to Hike With Your Dog Before She Tires You Out is expected this year, notes two of his best trail experiences as inspiration after you and your dog have gained some experience:
Thumbnail: Photography ©Michael DeYoung | Getty Images.
St. Louis-based freelance writer Martha M. Everett has lived on both coasts covering everything from Washington to Westminster. Like her Keeshond-Italian Greyhound mix, Trooper, she’s treat motivated, but only one of them has tried to eat a grandfather clock.
Tell us: What are your tips for hiking with dogs? Where do you and your dog like to hike? What are some dog-friendly hikes near you?
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!
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