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.
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.
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.
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!