I had kind of an interesting experience recently after posting a query on a couple of my favorite hiking-dog Facebook groups. It was mostly my fault. The question that I asked (“What do you look for in a long-distance hiking dog?”) wasn’t quite the question that I wanted answered (“How would you evaluate an individual dog in a shelter environment for long-distance hiking interest and aptitude?”).
What I got was:
- A long list of everyone’s favorite breeds and types, most of which was interesting, because people talking about what they love is often interesting, and some of which gave me good stuff to chew on.
- Multiple cheerful suggestions to, “Adopt, not shop!” Which is a subject that I have many feelings about that would probably need their own blog post, and also a bit of a sore subject right now given that I’m trying but have apparently developed a get-dog-that-I’d-like-to-meet-adopted-by-somebody-else-twenty-minutes-before-I-arrive-at-the-shelter-where-he’s-been-sitting-with-zero-interested-visitors-for-the-last-month superpower. Which is delightful for the dogs, but sad for me!
- Several people saying that, “All dogs are good for hiking.”
But also no.
To be fair, I’ve said the exact same thing on others’ posts. Most dogs will enjoy most of the hikes that most people do, most of the time. Get the dog that you’ll be happy living with day in and day out; the within-normal-limits weekend jaunts will take care of themselves. And — again to be fair — this is very much on my mind as I search for something a little more intense than my darling Lilo. I’d love to find a critter that will be game for some high-mileage days and I’m comfortable with the idea of taking on Too Much Dog for an average pet-dog home, but it wouldn’t be fair to anyone in the house to take on Too Much Dog For Me. We’re going to spend a lot more time together off the trail than on it, you know?
And yet. And yet! If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from convincing Lilo to play the hiking game, it’s that not all dogs are good for hiking.
It could have gone either way with Lilo. She’s by nature a worrier and a spook; just today she needed some pats and reassurance to go through a familiar tunnel on our rail trail. She will absolutely turn into a sad fragile delicate flower in the rain or wind. She’s also physically dense like a brick, with a massive front end. She struggles for balance in scrambly sections and can be hard on herself; while she has this lovely long powerful trot, when she jumps down off something, she does not land lightly. She dislikes hot weather, which might be more of a problem if I didn’t dislike it, too. (Instead we just both lose all will to live when the thermometer climbs above 80 deg F!)
She also loves going places and doing things with me. She’s attentive to the trail and to making sure that she keeps me in sight and is an easy dog to hike with in many ways. She’s methodical; she rarely goes down the trail with any speed, but she also just kinda doesn’t stop. That native caution and her thinky brain combine to mean that when she’s comfortable trying a section with tricky footing, she’s a bit of a genius at figuring it out and that is so cool to watch. And she takes good care of herself; I don’t have to worry about her the way that, for example, I worried about my Tucker horse (in the picture above) or my old dog Casey, neither of whom knew the meaning of quit.
But it could have gone either way. I didn’t hike with her for years because she seemed so overwhelmed by it. When we started back, we spent a lot of time staring at shadows and boulders (and as above, that worry is still a part of her to this day) and I’m honestly not sure we’d have made it this far if I hadn’t been able to hike her early mornings on uncrowded weekdays to keep the reactivity manageable. Lilo’s a great hiking dog now, but it took a lot of hard work from both of us to get her there and it would have been easy to scare her along the way — and that would have been the end of that.
Which means that I’m in kind of a funny place. Lilo is in some ways the poster child for “all dogs are good at hiking”…and at the same time, the very fact of her success has made me that much more aware of what I’m asking when I say to a dog, “Do you wanna go for a hike?” I’m so glad and so grateful that she likes to hike with me; I don’t ever want to overdraw on her trust and I very much want, insofar as I’m able, to stack the odds in favor of the next pup also wanting to play this game.
So how would you evaluate an individual dog in a shelter environment for long-distance hiking interest and aptitude?