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Hiking with Dogs – How to keep them happy and healthy

August 3, 2015
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I saw a bumper sticker a while back that said “Colorado: A dog in every Subaru” and I had to laugh because it seemed pretty damn accurate.

We’ve been in Colorado for almost a decade now and we don’t have a Subaru but we do have a couple dogs. Dogs who have lived awesome, outdoorsy lives. They are our hiking buddies, our camping buddies, our biking buddies, and our paddleboarding buddies. They have probably spent more nights sleeping under the stars than many people have in their entire lives and they are pretty much up for any adventure.

Allow me to introduce them to you!

This is Maddie. At almost eleven years old she is the matriarch of our little pack. We adopted her from the Leavenworth Animal Welfare Society when she was around a year old and she has been the best adventure buddy a girl could ask for. She has climbed 15 of Colorado’s 14ers, ran more miles with me than I’ll ever be able to count, accompanied me on mountain bike rides all over Kansas and Colorado, and kept me warm on cold nights in the tent. She’s getting up there in age and starting to slow down a bit but, for the most part, she’s still got it!

hiking dogs

This crazy girl is Spotty. We adopted her from the good folks at Boulder Humane Society when she was just a pup. This dog is seriously up for anything. Hiking, running, mountain biking, camping …. you name it, she’ll do it! She’s also the dog that I take standup paddleboarding with me when I don’t have a kid on board! She is a big cuddly teddy bear of a dog with a bit of a rebellious streak. She’s been known to sneak out of the tent in the middle of the night, go romping around in the woods for an hour or so, and then sneak back in before anyone noticed she was gone. We’re pretty sure that she’s out meeting her boyfriend or knocking back whiskey sours in the woods.

These two have been our constant companions in all things outdoorsy and over the years we have learned a lot about how to keep them healthy and happy when we are out and about. We’ve had a lot of grand adventures, a couple failures, and learned a ton along the way. And now I’m going to share some of what we’ve learned with you!

We’ll leave water and snow-based adventures for another day. For now, let’s talk about how to keep everyone safe when out hiking in the backcountry.

Know their limits.

hiking dogs

Maddie on the lower slopes of Mt. Massive.

Before you take any dog on a hike it is important to have some idea of what their limits are. Dogs are a lot like people in that they need to be conditioned to both the distances that you plan to do as well as the environment that they are going to be hiking in. If you live at 2,000 feet above sea level, don’t exercise regularly, and have never hiked more than a few miles, you probably won’t have a very enjoyable time trying to do a long hike at 12,000+ feet. The same goes for your dog. Five miles into a ten mile hike is not the time to learn that five miles is your dog’s limit!

Know your limits too.

Hiking with a dog is not at all unlike hiking with a small child. You are responsible for their health and well-being. You need to be clear-headed enough to make decisions about what is good and safe for the both of you. And you are going to be the one that will have to figure out how to get both of you off the trail in the event that things go very wrong. There are plenty of horrible stories about dogs being left on the side of mountains because their owners needed to make a quick getaway. You don’t want to be that guy.

Bring the right gear for your route.

Maddie had probably done 12 fourteeners with us when we took her on Mt of the Holy Cross’s long and jagged Halo Ridge. At 15-miles, this was a long hike for her, but she had easily knocked out several hikes that were much longer. We really weren’t too worried. And then, halfway across the sharp, talus filled route, her feet began to hurt. As soon as we realized what was happening we put her Ruffwear GripTrex booties on which made the situation infinitely better. Without those booties, there’s a pretty good chance we would have been carrying her down from 14,000 feet. We don’t use booties all the time but when they are necessary, they are really necessary.

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Maddie enjoying the view, and her booties, on the summit of La Plata Peak.

Dogs need water too!

Just because a dog can’t ask for water doesn’t mean that it isn’t thirsty! If your hike happens to parallel a stream or lake, this isn’t as much of a concern, but if you are hiking in the desert or above treeline where water sources are few and far between, you’ll want to be sure to have plenty of water with you for both you and your dog.

Know when to leave them at home.

Much as we may want to take our dogs with us everywhere, not every hike or trip is a dog friendly one. And just because your dog can do a hike, doesn’t mean that it should. Dogs are notorious for chasing wildlife and knocking rocks down onto hikers below them. Our dogs can certainly handle Class 3 scrambling but, to us, the risks to them and others aren’t worth the rewards. We also leave them home pretty much anytime we will be heading into the desert (not that dogs can’t hike in the desert but, for us, it’s not worth the extra worry) or when the temperatures will be hot.

Looking down on the final stretch to the Class 3 summit of Kit Carson Peak. My dogs would have probably handled this much better than we did but I was really happy that we left them at home!

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