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Here's what you need to know before going hiking with your dog

Avoid injuries and tick bites with these expert tips from a vet and a dog trainer.

© Cavan Images   Image: Woman with backpack kissing dog while standing on field

By Dana McMahan, NBC News

If you love your dog and love being active and outside, taking your pup hiking is about as good as it gets. As summer gets into full swing you may be just as likely to meet a four-legged fellow hiker on the trail as another person.

Living in a densely populated urban area as my husband and I do, we make full use of the Olmsted-designed neighborhood park. But nothing beats letting our three year old Great Pyrenees mix, who was born to roam, really stretch his legs with an outing in the country. So off we went recently to a nearby state park to explore an abandoned amusement park (which was as cool as it sounds!).

A very steep .6 mile hill required both a downhill and and uphill slog to get to the old park and return. Well, for the two people it was a slog. Our dog Cash happily bounded up and down, up and down. But the next day? None of us were happy when he visibly limped on our morning walk. Since my number one job as a dog mom is to keep him healthy and safe, I felt absolutely terrible when I learned at the vet that he had tweaked his shoulder. My poor pup, who only ever goes out on flat city streets and parks, wasn't any more used to the steep climb than we were, and was paying the price.

That's not unusual, I found when I started talking to dog owners and heard stories of having to carry dogs who got overly tired or couldn't keep going on a hike. Determined to be more prepared the next time we go out, I turned to a couple of experts for tips we can all use when we take our dogs hiking. Massachusetts dog trainer Mary Simon founded Outdoor Dog Adventures, and has taken countless dogs on hikes. Dog parent and veterinarian David Wohlstadter of BluePearl Pet Hospital in New York is an avid hiker.


Know your dog

So what should you know first before hitting the trail? Know your dog, and know how prepared they are. The basic things to consider, Dr. Wohlstadter said, are their age, their level of fitness including weight, "and their breed plays a role too," he said, "because some … like bulldogs, those guys can be more sensitive to heat." That's a concern not only for heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but breeds with "smushed-in faces," Simon said, like pugs and boxers, "can have more trouble breathing in warmer temperatures."

Whatever the breed, if they've been lounging around in the AC all summer, they need time to acclimate to the heat (just like us), so your first jaunt shouldn't be a full-day hard scramble. Work your way up to longer hikes over a period of time. Humans need seven to 14 days to get used to heat, said Dr. Wohlstadter, so bring Fido along as you're working on your own heat tolerance!


To leash or not to leash

A big decision is whether your dog's going to be an on-leash hiker, or off. Depending on the terrain it can be cumbersome to have them on leash sometimes, Simon said. But, and this is a huge but, your dog has to have a rock solid recall before you should dream of letting them go (and of course that's even if dogs are allowed off leash where you're hiking).

What does that mean? Come means come no matter what the dog is doing or how tempting that distraction is. "A dog may have a good recall in home setting or neighborhood but that's totally different when on a trail," Simon said, "so people need to make sure they've practiced around high level distractions." Keep in mind too, she added, that if you're hiking with friends with dogs, they may behave differently. "If the other one goes off, the first one may go too."

You've also got to have complete off-leash control so that you can keep your dog out of flora and fauna that shouldn't be disturbed (a good rule of thumb, Simon said, is that if people shouldn't be traipsing in it, neither should dogs), and prevent them from chasing creatures. The last thing you want is your dog preying on an endangered species! Dogs also don't necessarily understand the danger of a cliff. I've seen it myself — they may just run right up to the edge and if you're not there to stop them, they could just keep going.


Beware of things that bite and burrow

Of course not all hazards care whether the dog is on or off a leash. "Ticks are a huge thing," Dr. Wohlstadter said. "A lot [of ticks] are on the end of vegetation just sitting there with their legs out waiting to latch on." Shudder!

To prevent tickborne diseases, "talk to your vet about the best flea and tick products based on their full health history," said Dr. Wohlstadter . There's not a one size fits all solution, and they all come with risks. "I personally use two different types of tick prevention when I go out in New York," he said.

Even with a preventative that should make the ticks die and fall off, always check your dog when you've been outside. "Get into a routine, that's the most important thing," Dr. Wohlstadter said. He suggests starting from the nose and working back, always following the same steps so you're not skipping any areas. Feel under their hair, he noted. Simon suggested keeping a pair of tweezers with you so you can extract them if necessary.

Another peril is foxtails, a spiky grass with barbed seeds that can burrow into fur. They can get into tender toepads or a dog's nose, Simon said. "There are accounts of them migrating as far as lungs. Those are scary so that's something to inspect for." If your dog is licking his feet, pawing his nose, or shaking his head, those might be signs he's gotten into foxtails.


Staying hydrated

So how much water do you need for a hike? "That's a tough one," Dr. Wohlstadter said, because it depends on the dog's size and level of fitness, temperature and humidity. But one thing's for sure, they need water and they need plenty of it. So if you're going on a walk too long to pack enough water for, he suggests bringing a portable filter and a collapsible bowl. What about that pond (or for my dog, puddle)? That's a hard pass for the vet, with parasites, bacteria, and algae bloom that can be toxic. Even running water like a stream, he said, is still risky. "You don't know where it comes from, what field [is upstream] that had chemicals in it, what wild animals use it." That said, "dogs drink [from natural sources] all the time," he said. "You gotta do what you can do."

If you have a big and fit enough dog, it is an option to let them carry their own water with a wearable pack, Simon said. She likes Ruffwear products, but whichever you choose, make sure it's a good fit and doesn't slide, she said.


Canine first aid

Used to playing Dr. Google to every little health concern? Don't count on doing that on a hike, Simon said. "Lot of trails you won't have cell so you don't have the ability to Google to find out what's wrong, or to call the vet." Some humane societies offer pet first aid classes, and Simon recommends having some basic first aid supplies, and assessing your ability to handle what comes your way. For instance, if your dog is injured or just too tired to continue, can you pick him up and carry him to safety? That's another good reason to start off on shorter hikes — your dog gets used to the heat, builds up their endurance, and if worst comes to worst, you don't have as far to carry them.

And observe your dog's behavior. "If the dog is lying down doesn't mean they're being lazy or just tired," Simon said. "A lot of times they want to stay with people so they ignore their symptoms till it's too late, so if they're lying down pay attention."

This can all sound a little overwhelming, but it's worth it. Hiking "is amazing for dogs." Simon said. They get to just be a dog, outside our fairly sterile homes. "It's a feast for their senses. They get to smell things that are unfamiliar. They get to be physically tired out and get to use their mind as well. It's some instinctual fulfillment stuff they were born to do but don't get to." Just be sure you're doing your job and keeping them safe and healthy so you can enjoy happy trails for a long time to come.

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Pets Magazine: Here's what you need to know before going hiking with your dog
Here's what you need to know before going hiking with your dog
Avoid injuries and tick bites with these expert tips from a vet and a dog trainer.
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