There’s dogs in them thar hills

Hiking with your furry best friend can be a lot of fun with a little preparation

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

The only thing more fun than jumping into a mountain lake at the end of a grueling North Idaho trail is doing so with your slobbery, happy best friend.

Hiking with a dog makes time outdoors easily twice as fun, but it takes some training, research and supplies to make the experience safe and successful for all involved.

Know your dog

More important than knowing the destination of a hike is knowing that your relationship with your dog is strong enough to safely reach it.

In an article for the Appalachian Mountain Club, author Lisa Demore Ballard writes that fitness, health, size and age are all factors to consider when choosing a hike for your dog. It’s essential that the dog has the stamina and basic physical ability to traverse varied terrain. Small dogs probably shouldn’t go on long hikes with large obstacles, and dogs that don’t get a lot of exercise on a regular basis need to ease into the adventurous life with short, shady hikes.

Behavior, Ballard writes, is also a major consideration.

The author’s dog, Mac, stops for a breather on the trail to Wellington Creek Falls in Clark Fork. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

Leash training and solid recall abilities are essential before going hiking with a dog, especially if you want to let your dog roam off leash. Local veterinary technician Amber Reimer, who often explores area trails with her dogs, said owners should seize every opportunity to practice these skills, especially in new or distracting environments where dogs are allowed, like pet or feed stores.

She said it’s also important that the dog listen when told to “leave it” — no matter how tempting a smell or running rabbit may be.

“The dog should become very relaxed in any environment because they’re looking to you for leadership, not just doing whatever they please,” Reimer said. “It makes for a much happier dog.”

Area resident Rebecca Sanchez has plenty of practice hiking with her family’s Great Pyrenees, Solo. She said it’s crucial to know how your dog will react in any situation, and to adjust to the animal’s needs.

“My dog’s breed is made for the mountains, but the one downside is that they get hot easily,” Sanchez said of Solo. “I tend to stick to off-leash locations so that she can hike the way she likes to hike. On the way into the mountains, she will go ahead of us and wait for us in the shade. On the way back, she stays behind us and again hides in the shade until we get further down the trail. Essentially, she herds us into and out of the mountains, but at her own pace.”

Know the trail

There’s information about most local trails in guidebooks and online, so it’s fairly easy to research length and difficulty prior to taking your dog. Find out if there are water sources along the way where your dog can cool off, but bringing water from home to drink is always the best option to avoid waterborne illness. It’s also important to avoid trails with cliffs or major distractions — like mountain bikers — when the dog is just learning.

The reality of entering the backcountry with a dog is that they won’t be the only animal around. It’s best to hike in large, noisy groups to avoid any confrontation with bears or other large fauna, but animal encounters do happen — this is when a strong recall relationship with your dog comes in handy. If possible, contact the local ranger station prior to heading out to find out if there has been any recent animal activity in the area worthy of concern.

Though it rarely happens, dogs have been known to encounter traps, especially if they wander away from the main trail. Idaho Fish and Game has videos explaining how to release a dog from a wild game trap, should that situation arise.

Collect the essentials

Bring along a leash, collar or harness, dog tag, water, bowl and treats, as well as plastic bags for cleaning up after your pup. There are plenty of resources online listing canine hiking gear for everyone from the beginner to the overnight backpacker.

It’s also good to remember that the terrain on a mountain trail is not the same as the average afternoon walk around the neighborhood, so there is a greater possibility of injury to your dog’s paw pads. To combat this, it’s important to bring along a First Aid kit with bandages, tape and ointment, or even to mitigate damage with soft booties. Sanchez said she uses Musher’s Secret Paw Protection cream on Solo.

“Some people use little booties, but I wanted something that would protect her paws without taking away from how they work,” Sanchez said.

Practice trail etiquette

The National Park Service has a simple acronym denoting practices to which dog owners should adhere: B.A.R.K, meaning, “Bag your pet’s waste, Always leash your pet, Respect wildlife and Know where you can go.”

These are good rules of thumb for hiking anywhere, although depending on a dog’s abilities and specific trail guidelines, off-leash hiking is possible. Still, a leash should never be far from reach.

If hiking off leash, your dog should always be within sight and within recall. Ballard suggests that if other hikers approach, leash your dog and give hikers without pets the right-of-way. Try to keep your dog from traipsing through vegetation as much as possible in an effort to follow “Leave No Trace” guidelines, and keep the number of people in your hiking group greater than the number of dogs for optimal control of any situation.

“You and your dog are both ambassadors for everyone else who hikes with dogs,” Ballard writes. “It only takes a few incidents, a couple of outspoken dog-haters, or several expensive dog rescues for a backcountry area to become more restricted to dogs.”

It’s a sentiment Sanchez keeps in mind while hiking in the mountains of the Idaho Panhandle with Solo.

“It is a more pleasant experience for everyone on the trail if hikers keep their dogs to themselves,” she said. “You never know if someone has a fear of other people’s dogs, or if the other hiker has a dog that does not appreciate being approached by another dog. Being respectful in this regard keeps both the pets and people safe and happy on the trail.”

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