“All Dogs Are Good For Hiking,” Or, Yes, But Also No

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. Several people saying that, “All dogs are good for hiking.”

Which: yes!

But also no.

A desire to defy gravity is probably a good sign in a prospective hiking pal.

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.

Everything that I know about athletic animals and the importance of how a critter hits the ground, I learned from this guy.

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.

Even top-heavy monster trucks can scramble if they really try.

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?


12 thoughts on ““All Dogs Are Good For Hiking,” Or, Yes, But Also No

  1. Boca – you know, the dog I can actually take out in public – is not that into hiking. She’s nervous on her own, especially in closed-in wooded areas, and though she’s not reactive, she just doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself. She’s also very lazy and starts to drag after about 30 minutes. I’m hoping that she will come to like it more. Ruby loves it of course, and if we see no other dogs or people we are fine! Sigh.


    1. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun? :-p I’m honestly thinking of switching over to night-hiking once the weather warms/stabilizes enough. I’ve always enjoyed it (and while Lilo is weird about dusk, she’s not much bothered by full dark) and as good as she’s gotten, I cannot imagine taking her on some of the typically crowded summer weekend trails — just doesn’t sound like fun for either of us!


  2. I really love how easily dog conversations can devolve into everyone telling you how great their dogs are, and how much they love hiking with them. It’s sweet and charming and, as you say, often interesting–I feel like I’ve become aware of a lot of breeds and types I would never have considered without following such conversations.

    As for the question you meant to ask–well, honestly, I think evaluating a dog in a shelter can be very hard, especially if the shelter is crowded and the dogs don’t get out of their kennels enough. Do any of the shelters near you let volunteers take dogs on field trips? Or might let you foster to adopt?

    Also, consider asking the dog people in your life to keep their eyes open for a dog who might suit you. Trainers know other trainers; we have Nala because a trainer friend knew we were looking, and connected us with her friend who pulled Nala from a shelter to be a drug dog but found isn’t have the kind of obsessive drive she prefers. But the situation was perfect, because Lisa had watched Nala move–verifying she had no serious structure issues–and seen her play well with lots of other dogs, and had brought her on hikes on her land, so knew she was a dog with a nice natural recall and a tendency to stick with her people.

    One thing I didn’t consider before Nala, though, is that a good hiking dog should become reasonably comfortable in new places pretty quickly–a skill that Nala is still developing. So that’s one thing I would run tests for with a shelter dog–taking her to a novel location (an outdoor one!) and seeing how much acclimation time she needs before she can do simple things like take several treats in a row without checking out, or playing a simple food game or tug game with you.


    1. I love that, too. I admit that I can get a little tetchy when somebody keeps insisting that I should go for a given thing that I’ve made clear just isn’t going to work for me…but given that I’m now seriously considering a breed that I’d thought was firmly in the “not my style” category before talking with some folks who own them, maybe even that is unfair of me!

      And yeah, I fear you and Zoephee are probably spot-on about the difficulty of the question. I’m comfortable evaluating basic temparment and trainability/liveability, especially since one of the things that I’m deliberately looking for this time around is a dog that copes well with stress. But it may just be that there isn’t a good way to know, say, how pup is going to react to getting tired. And some of the stuff that I could concoct tests for is really dependent on the shelter in question. The shelter Lilo came from had a lot of agility equipment and a rail trail and was also the state’s farm-animal shelter right out back, so I could absolutely evaluate a dog there for “how do you feel about weird footing?” and “are you still even remotely interested in me if the enivornment smells like squirrels and mud?” and “will you want to eat horses?” But that was also a REALLY NICE and REALLY WELL-FUNDED shelter that hasn’t had any dogs that fit my criteria recently. So it goes!

      Field trips are an interesting question. Someone elsewhere suggested that, too, and I loved the idea but thought it might be asking too much — but if this search takes a while and I end up establishing a relationship with a shelter or two, maybe I will ask. I love the idea of fostering in the abstract, but would feel bad about offering to foster with an ulterior motive and while I’m totally confident that I can get Lilo happy with having the right new dog around without too much trouble, I’d worry a lot about it being overly stressful for her to have a succession of less known quantities coming through. I’m definitely trying to work the doggy-friend-connection angle, though! Have some interesting possibilities on that front; waiting for more info. šŸ™‚

      The novel location suggestion makes a lot of sense — thank you! I’ll keep that in mind.


  3. I think it’s really hard in the shelter sort of environment to evaluate a dog for hiking. I guess a young, active dog might be okay for hiking but what if they end up being environmentally sensitive? It’s just so hard to tell how a shetler dog is going to turn out until you’ve had them a few months and they are completely out of their shell. Lilo sounds so much like Zoe, sensitive dogs can be so tough. Zoe loves going places with me too but she is easily overwhelmed by basically what you said bothers Lilo. In addition to those things, if she hears a gun shot or any sort of bang with bass to it or one that echos she freaks out. That’s one major problem we’ve had on our hikes.. and she wants to take off for the car. Phoenix does better but doesn’t like other dogs. There just really aren’t any guarantees about anything, I guess.


    1. Oof, environmental-sensitivity is a good point. I think I’m a little insulated against that because I’m specifically looking for something that tolerates the stress of a shelter environment relatively well? But certainly, having adapted to a particular environment doesn’t necessarily mean the dog will handle other. That kind of thing is a point in favor of foster-based rescues (and breeders), but then you have other challenges (like the lovely local-ish pit bull rescue…that won’t adopt to anyone who doesn’t own their own home). It’s a process, I s’pose!


  4. In some ways, Mr. N is super good for hiking. He is totally comfortable in new places, has the stamina of an Energizer bunny, goes up slopes like a mountain goat and he’s super portable in case he gets injured and we have to carry him out. On the flip side, he has no insulation due to having hair, and everything sticks to it. And animals want to eat him.


  5. I have nothing useful to say about hiking with dogs, but I want to shout out about that picture of Lilo on rocks at Ranger’s pool because it was so striking the first time around this happened:
    summer river rocks


  6. I’m dramatically behind and playing catch up!

    But I’d probably do research on breeds and athleticism (okay, I don’t need to do any of that because I’ve been doing it my whole life) and have that in mind, then when a candidate that looks the part of the breed(s) I know can be athletic rolled along, I’d then see how attuned they were to wanting to interact with me. If they’ve got a game personality and an obvious desire to watch the human and try to be near the human and try to listen to the human all while doing so in a balanced manner (which of course you can see and analyze because you’re a horse person who’s done such horse sports that require a balanced, well-put-together athlete), then I’d say they’re probably a good candidate.

    But then again, this is all moot now because I know you’ve got the Frog Dog already. šŸ˜‰


    1. A flood of comments is always appreciated! And I think this is all good advice. The interest in the human piece had not occurred to me beforehand — not because I didn’t think it was important but just because I’m so used to having dogs whose favorite thing is me that I forgot to include it in my criteria! But its importance became very apparent as soon as I started meeting dogs. (And now I think I understand better why Kenai is so awesome!)


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