Hiking the Novice Dog: Part One

I’ve been feeling self-conscious lately. I keep saying things like:

“Sorry, too many miles for the dog.”

“I’d love to, but the dog’s not ready.”

“Wish I could, but I promised the dog an easy one next time out.”

I’m a little afraid that my friends think I’m avoiding them. The truth is that I’m just in a funny place right now, hiking-wise. I really love a big-mile day. I also really love hiking with my dogs. Part of the impetus for bringing Titus home was combining those loves. In the meantime, though, I’m turning down invitations because I have three rules for hiking with dogs.

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Mt. Major: a cool hike with a cool summit, but not our end game.

It’s Gotta Be Fun

My dogs don’t help plan the hike. Oh, they’re willing participants! It’s all paws on deck the second I start filling water bottles or loading up my pack and the only phrase that gets Lilo out of bed before sunrise is, “Wanna go for a hike?” But they don’t know where we’re going when we arrive at the trailhead. Hiking with dogs — participating in any sport with animals — is a responsibility. It’s on me to make sure that they’re okay out there.

This starts with checking their physical readiness for the day’s adventure. That link goes to  really nice article about appropriate exercise for young dogs that has me rethinking how quickly I want to take Titus up his first 4,000-footer. Other factors are important. About five flat miles on mostly dirt are a very different proposition than the same miles up the moonscape that is Mt. Washington. Mileage, terrain, footing, elevation gain, technicality, and weather all matter. This is true when hiking with a mature dog. I know that Lilo, for example, needs shorter, easier hikes when it’s hot and humid out. And it’s even truer when considering where to take a novice pup. I want Titus hiking with me for many years to come. That means I need to give his body a chance to acclimate to the job.

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It also means keeping track of conditions and rerouting to a flattish, shady route with lots of water instead of a dry summit when it’s 90 degrees F for the first time this year.

Mental and emotional readiness matter, too — and not just for the dog! Lilo did not start out as a fan of hiking. She thought it was scary; she’d frequently check out or just refuse to go down the trail. I’m goal-oriented, you guys. I like to move along and get stuff done. I found this super frustrating. S0 when I decided to try convincing her that hiking could be a fun game, I also decided that I would only take her out when I was in the right headspace to walk half a mile, stare at a rock for fifteen minutes, and then go back to the car. If I wanted to get summits and go fast, the dog stayed home. If I wanted her company in those early days, the hike had to be all about her.

Lilo was an extreme case, but the basic point holds for any dog. They don’t enjoy being scared, stressed, or sore any more than we do. Know your dog and make it fun. Pick routes with features they’ll enjoy and avoid, until you’ve built some trust, routes with features they won’t. Bring good treats and/or favorite toys and play happy training games as you go, including taking the time to train novel elements of the trail. Give them a break before they get tired. Move along again before they get frustrated or bored. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: help your dog arrive back at the car feeling like they won.

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Practicing recalls on trail and loving it!

And understand that not every dog wants to hike. Your odds go way up with a good introduction to the game, but if the dog just doesn’t want to play, that has to be okay, too.

Tip: Start a new dog with such short, easy hikes that you feel a little silly about it. Scale up based on age, fitness, and apparent ability level, but only add one new layer of challenge at a time. If she’s rocking out three flat miles, next time try four or five or find a three-mile loop that includes a small peak — but don’t decide it’s time to run her up Washington!

Okay. This post is requiring a little more brainpower than I expected and the day is a little nicer, so I’m going to break here. I’ll follow up with my other rules later in the week. In the meantime, please enjoy Krista‘s excellent post about some specific White Mountain routes for novice dogs. It’s a really well thought-out progression and probably I should have just linked it in the first place instead of promising to write my own philosophical post!

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6 thoughts on “Hiking the Novice Dog: Part One

  1. Lilo’s initial concerns about hiking/trail absolutely baffle me because (as I’m realizing) I’ve never really been around dogs that didn’t adore the outdoors! I have racked my head and I really don’t have much experience with dogs that aren’t incredibly high energy, outdoors-loving little fiends. I’m sure some of the dogs I’ve met in relative passing are, but wow… What an interesting bias I’ve developed from my experiences. Your documentation of Lilo’s history though has taught me about my bias though and helped me see beyond it. I think any future dog I have will be grateful for that.

    I, too, plan hikes for Kenai. Mostly since his surgery saga, but there was moderate planning before, too, when the weather was hot. After his surgeries, I realized I needed to condition him the way I condition my horses, or at least with the same mindset. I don’t know why that didn’t click before surgeries, but I’m glad it’s firmly in place now. It’s certainly better for everyone involved!

    Great post — definitely setting aside for the future when another dog enters my life. =)

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    1. She was a city mouse! I mean, she went to the barn and such, but I wasn’t hiking much at all when I got her (too busy horsing) and with her reactivity and shut-down-ness, we had plenty of other work to do. I’m really lucky and grateful that she’s been so willing to play along as hiking has worked its way back into my life. Many pit bulls are fantastic natural hikers, but she’s kind of a special snowflake in many ways!

      It means I’ve had to think and work a lot harder than I did when I was hiking with, frex, my childhood Lab or with my Casey dog, or than a lot of people who have more “normal” dogs, but it’s all to the good; it made all the difference in the world for her and prepared me for Titus, insofar as anything could have prepared me for Titus!

      It’s amazing and gratifying how much eventing and endurance stuff transfers well to hiking with dogs. 🙂

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  2. Great advice. I choose routes that have features that my dogs will love too! Since R’s elbow surgery, my vet is teaching me about the importance of strengthening stabilization muscles by having him do exercises on a squishy disk. He also does obstacle courses at a walk so that he has to carefully place and stabilize each limb. As I’ve been doing this stuff with him, I’ve started wondering whether it might be a good idea to do stabilization work regularly even with healthy dogs. I’m not sure it’s necessary but it might help prepare a novice dog for a rocky route!

    I love seeing the images of your dogs in the Whites!

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    1. I’m crap at commenting on blog posts on my phone, but I’ve been following R’s surgery saga with interest and I’m so glad he’s doing so well. The rehab/PT process is fascinating and reminds me of sport horses I’ve watched rehab from injury; often the ones who really stick to the protocols seem to come out the other side fitter and sounder than they began.

      I know a couple of folks who do balance work with their hiking dogs and really think it helps. I haven’t tried it myself (aside from Lilo’s T-rex trick, I guess!), but I can see a lot of logic to it. I suspect the agility world in particular has a lot of useful tricks that we could poach…

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  3. Love the juxtaposed expressions of Staying!Titus and recall!Titus, haha.

    What a great reminder that last summer we weren’t seemingly feeling the heat as badly as we are already–but also we emphasized hikes with lots of water features, almost every step of the way, and me wading in with Nala so she would swim. Gotta get back to those trails now that summer’s here!

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    1. LOL! He is an expressive little guy, that’s for sure. The comedian to Lilo’s straight man.

      I’m not a great judge of hot weather just because I hate it so much, but I feel like this summer (at least here) is already way warmer than our last several. I’m really hoping that trend doesn’t continue, but what can you do? Good thing you already have your hot-weather routes planned out! I got a list of lesser-traveled, low-elevation trails from a friend and I’m looking forward to exploring them…I miss the higher summits, but there’s good stuff down here, too!

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