The dog was a sturdy Labrador retriever, sporting an au courant nylon backpack. He was effortlessly trotting toward me on the trail, which was a demanding 10-mile loop along Lake Michigan in northern Wisconsin. At the other end of the leash was an athletic-looking young woman wearing a turquoise daypack on her back.
I have a vague recollection of being that young and having the energy to hike long trails replete with rocks, roots, and hilly terrain. But no dog I ever had could have done what that Lab was doing, and it got me thinking: How might my outdoor-loving clients prepare their dogs for an extended excursion through nature?
First, some common-sense advice: Know thy breed! If you’re the proud owner of a Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso, or basset hound, chances are your adventures are best restricted to short trips. But hiking doesn’t need to be limited to working dogs or sporting breeds. Many medium-to-large-size healthy dogs can be conditioned to be your companion on the trails.
Besides health and conformation, temperament is a consideration. Dogs that dislike walking on a lead are out. A shy, fearful, aggressive, highly strung, or barking dog might not only have a rotten experience, but also alienate fellow hikers. Leave that one at home.
For the lucky dogs whose people regularly exercise them, no special preparation is necessary for an hour or two of walking. But longer trips, or those in difficult terrain, will require physical conditioning above your normal routine. A dog whose activity has been confined to sniffing around the back yard will need more time to whip his muscles and cardiovascular system into hiking shape.
Veterinarians recommend starting your dog’s fitness walks pretty much the same way you would start your own: gradually and with regularity. Start four to six weeks before your planned excursion, longer if either of you have been sedentary. A typical conditioning program for both you and your dog would look something like this chart, and you can start anywhere on the table, depending on both of your physical capabilities. You can also spend more time on each distance if you or your dog need it.
At the end of two weeks, or when you and your pooch can easily walk for an hour, increase the length of the walk by 15-minute intervals every few days, adding rest days every two to three walks. Work up to doing at least half of your planned hiking distance a few times before your trip. Like to run? A 30-minute jog with your dog is equivalent to a couple of hours on the trail.
If your dog will be wearing a backpack, put an empty one on his back in the beginning, then gradually add the items that he’ll be carrying as you train. But keep the pack light; too much weight will put stress on his joints and tire him out. A well-conditioned working breed can carry at least 25 percent of his weight, but your 40-pound wheaten terrier might be able to manage only 10 percent.
It’s always more engaging to have a destination during the training period; how about a vigorous march to a Starbucks drive-up window for a cuppa joe for you and some water and a tasty morsel for your four-legged friend?
There are a few more things to remember. Of course you’ve already checked on the regulations covering the areas where you’ll be hiking; some parks, including most national parks, don’t allow dogs to share the trails. Also, I recommend you use a six-foot lead. Ditch your extendable leash.
Hydration is crucial for an active dog; bring plenty of water and food. Streams, ponds, lakes and standing water can harbor bacteria and parasites, so packing your own H2O is essential. Take breaks for water and snacks every half-hour or so. Collapsible food and water dishes will come in handy. If your hiking buddy is panting excessively, find a shady spot and rest until he recovers.
Cooler weather and fewer bugs in the late summer and fall make it a perfect time to get fit with your best friend. Muhammad Ali said “I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.” Follow his advice: Whether your goal is a two-hour traipse through the forest preserve or an all-day adventure in the Rockies, preparation is the key to a great experience!