Tips for Hiking with Your Dog

By: Dr. Kasandra Garner

The weather is warming up, even in the high country. You and your dog are tired of the same route around the neighborhood, even if the turkeys and rabbits do make it more interesting now that it’s Spring. Time to head to the trails!

Many trails in the immediate Asheville vicinity are dog friendly, as long as your dog is on a leash. Even on trails where there is no “leash law”, it is advisable to keep your dog on a leash unless he or she stays within a few feet of you and has a reliable recall. Other hikers may not want to be approached by your dog, even if your dog is friendly. Also, other hikers may have their dog on a leash because THEIR dog isn’t friendly. Another important reason to keep your dog on a leash is the popularity of mountain biking in this region. Your dog may startle when a cyclist rapidly overtakes you on a downhill, resulting in tragedy for your dog and the cyclist if a collision occurs. Yet another reason to keep your dog on a leash in the woods is the presence of wildlife. Even the best behaved pooch sometimes forgets their recall when on the scent of a deer or other critter. If your dog startles a bear and then runs to you, the bear may give chase and follow your dog back to you! So please, err on the side of caution and responsibility and keep your dog under close control at all times on the trails. I find that a hands-free leash system such as the one pictured on the right works very well on trails. I also like to have a colorful harness on my dogs so that they are easily seen and not mistaken for wild animals - especially during hunting season.

Every size and shape of dog can enjoy hiking, but steep rocky trails are probably not the best choice for toy breeds unless you are prepared to carry them when the terrain gets rough. Also remember to choose short routes if you are just starting to hike with your dog, to help their pads get used to the greater variety of surfaces found in the woods than in the neighborhood. Watch for signs of fatigue such as increased respiratory rate, frequently trying to lie down, or limping. Let your dog rest in the shade and offer water if you see any of these signs, and make your way back to your car rather than continuing on with the hike.

Early mornings are the best time to hike in the summer. Pick routes that provide shade and access to water, or make sure you carry enough for both yourself and your dog. There are many options for dog packs and collapsible dog bowls so that your dog can help you carry the load. If worked up to it slowly, most athletic dogs can carry up to 30% of their weight. I personally try not to go over 15% of the weight of my dogs, even though they are in very good shape. Water is heavy, and water bottles are awkward. I recommend buying an assortment of bladder-type reservoirs for you and your dogs. They are lighter and more flexible than traditional water bottles, and fit into a dog pack more comfortably.

One medication that I usually carry when I hike with my dogs is Benadryl (diphenhydramine) tablets. It is very helpful in case of bee stings or other bug bites. The dose for dogs is approximately 1 mg per pound. Snake bites can also happen when your dog is with you in the woods, particularly if your dog is not on a leash. DO NOT use a tourniquet and DO NOT cut an X over the bite or try to “suck the venom out of the wound”. Pick your dog up and calmly and quickly get him or her to your car and to the nearest veterinary hospital. If your dog is too big to pick up, and the bite is on a limb, use your shirt or the leash as a sling to help him walk back to the car. If the bite is on the head or neck, remove his collar in case of swelling. Snake bites are very painful, so do not touch the area where he or she was bitten. If you can identify the snake without putting yourself in danger, that it is helpful information. However, do not attempt to catch or kill the snake. Just get your dog to a veterinary hospital as soon as possible. Don't let the fear of snakes keep you out of the woods, however. I have been hiking with my four-legged trail companions for all of my life and so far have never had to deal with a snake bite, even though I do occasionally see snakes.

Another item I try to always carry with me in the woods is an air horn.  If I am approached by a wild animal or an unfriendly dog, a burst from the air horn often scares them away. When I am hiking by myself with my dogs, I also carry mace. Make sure you never discharge mace into the wind or you will end up macing youself and your dogs.

If your dog begins limping after running through some brush or rocky trail, check the nail beds and the pads. Torn nails will bleed a lot but are not life-threatening. Lacerated pads will cause significant discomfort. In both cases it is best to cut short the hike and get an appointment with your veterinarian to have the injury assessed. Bandaging a foot is hard to do well, and a tight bandage may do more damage than the original injury if it causes the foot to swell. You can slide a sock over the affected foot to protect it and keep it clean, but chances are your dog will simply chew or shake it off.

Always check the weather forecast before heading out for a hike, and realize that if you are heading into the high country the temperature can be at least 10 degrees cooler than in Asheville. A lightweight jacket is always a smart thing to have if you are heading above 5000 feet, even in the middle of summer. Likewise, especially in winter, make sure you are equipped to keep your dog warm, especially if it begins to rain. The need for protection from the weather on a hike varies greatly with the breed. I also recommend always having a good detailed topographic map of the area you are hiking, as it is easy to get turned around in the back country. There are also many good books with detailed descriptions of trails in this area. The more familiar you are ahead of time with the area where you are hiking, the less likely you and your dog are to get lost. Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back, so that if you do get stranded in the back country there is someone who will be able to tell search and rescue where to look for you. 

Both you and your dog will benefit from getting out into nature. For humans, a stroll through a wild landscape relieves stress in addition to providing cardiovascular benefits. For dogs, it provides mental and physical stimulation and a chance to smell new and exciting scents. Take advantage of this beautiful area we live in and take your dog hiking without delay. Your dog – and your psyche – will thank you.