I’ve never been much of a dog person, but now that I have a couple in the house, I’ve come to appreciate them. When it comes to dog hiking, I’ve discovered that dogs need to prepare just as much as humans in order to be successful on the trail.
While descending Yamnuska one year, I came across a couple with a golden lab. The lab was sitting on a boulder and the man was trying to coax him along, but he refused to budge. The digital and metacarpal pads of his front paws had been torn and were hanging in clumps. The couple had taken the lab on a traverse of Yamnuska, and if you’ve ever scrambled there, you’ll know that it’s difficult to descend without sliding through thin layers of scree. I have a few scars myself from the slips I’ve taken on those slopes. I can’t imagine a dog doing it for a first-time hike. The lab was also dehydrated; the couple had run out of water and were still above tree line. After learning that the lab belonged to the woman and that her new boyfriend had insisted they bring the dog along, and wondering if their relationship would survive this event, I passed around some water, gave some to the lab, and in what turned out to be one of the best workouts of my life, I carried an 80-pound dog off a mountain.
Dogs need to prepare for challenging hikes, just like humans. We wouldn’t think to attempt an all day hike over challenging terrain without first building up to it. At best, it wouldn’t be much fun, and at worst, we could get ourselves into serious trouble physically. It’s the same with dogs. I imagine it took some time for the lab to recover from his injuries, and I’m sure the hike wasn’t much fun for him.
When building up your dog’s stamina for the trail, start with short hikes over easy terrain and build on that. If you have a big dog and cannot carry it any great distance (or at all), consider practicing on trails that are close to roadways, so that you can provide a vehicle rescue if needed.
I’ve seen some healthy, robust dogs over the years on some challenging, rocky trails, and when I talk to the owners, inevitably, they say that they have built their dogs’ capabilities up over time. Dog hiking can be quite rewarding for both humans and dogs, but take the time to make sure it will be enjoyable and safe for all. Happy (dog) hiking!