Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Dogs on the trail
Here are some thoughts that you might want to consider if you're thinking about hiking with a dog...
First of all, I love animals but am allergic to just about everything so I appreciate it when dog owners prevent their pets from nosing in on people who may not want the contact. Also, because in my experience, 95% of pet owners think their dogs are well behaved but only 5% of dogs are, I'm reluctant to tell people to take their dogs on the trail.
That being said, before you hike with your pup, ask yourself "What will I do if for some reason my dog can't hike and I'm miles from a trailhead?" Can you carry your dog? Can you perform first aid on your dog? Will you get off the trail if your dog is injured and can't keep hiking? It's one thing to find someone to take care of a healthy dog for a few months, it'll be harder finding someone who wants to care for an injured dog while its owner keeps hiking.
For humans, there are wilderness first aid classes and SAR teams that will look for you if necessary, and carry you out if necessary. That SAR team is unlikely to be available or have the resources for your dog. But the first aid class might prove useful - but you still need to be able to rescue your own dog.
Should your dog be seriously injured and neither a rescue nor first aid will work to save its life, are you prepared to euthanize your dog. This is something you should speak with your vet about before you take your dog on the trail.
I've met many hikers with dogs who have just never thought about these aspects of hiking with their dogs.
As for dog behavior... A well-behaved dog will stay on the trail with its owner. A hiker who encounters a dog without its owner has no way to know how the dog will react. Just because the dog owner knows how people should behave near their dogs does not mean that someone who is hiking without a dog should also know how to react. Often, they may be afraid and this usually makes the situation worse.
Dogs should keep their place in line and not "squeeze" past other people on the trail - especially if they are just going to eventually go back to make sure their owner is still following. This may be a bigger issue for herding dogs than for others. Hikers don't like it when dogs knock our hiking poles and brush past us when they are wet and muddy. This is especially true of dogs that wear their own packs. Unlike their owners, they rarely ever really learn that they are that much wider than normal and require more space to pass others on the trail.
Dogs should be quiet and not bark at strangers. Remember, almost everyone you meet on the trail is going to be a "stranger."
Dogs should not bark or chase wildlife. The wildlife has enough to deal with without the additional stress of a dog chasing them.
Dogs should be kept outside of shelters and off shelter platforms. Nobody likes muddy paw prints on their sleeping bags and even if the shelter is empty, dogs can drag mud into the shelter that someone may need right after the dog leaves.
Dogs must be taught not to mark such things as the inside of shelters, random tents, and packs that are leaning up against trees.
Where people are cooking, dogs should stay away from people who are preparing or eating their meals. If they beg or steal food, they should be on a leash away from others.
Dog owners should be cognizant of the fact that not all people like dogs and many are afraid or phobic of them and may not behave as you would prefer. The owner should not need to be asked by others to keep their dog away. It is the owner's responsibility to make sure the dog stays out of shelters, water sources, and away from other hikers.
Dog owners should also clean up after their dogs. Ideally, you should bury your dog's waste just as you would your own. Ideally, you should try to train your dog to move well off the trail when defecating. If they don't, you should make sure their waste is moved off the trail. Just because you may not see your dog go doesn't mean you aren't responsible for it's actions. Many of the more responsible dog owners move other people's dog's waste off the trail to help maintain good hiker/dog owner/dog relations. You may recognize your own dog's waste but nobody else knows the difference between your dog's waste and another's. (On the other hand, you might want to know what bear scat looks like - no need to move that off the trail. It's a good warning that bears might be in the area. ;-)
You should be in control of your pet at all times. Failure in this area could result in very painful experiences with porcupines (carry and know how to use pliers) or potentially fatal interactions with snakes.
Dog owners should make sure their dogs are treated monthly to ward off ticks. Flea collars just do not seem to do the trick and while dog ticks don't carry Lyme disease, deer ticks can be carried by dogs and transmitted to people. If you know your dog has fleas or ticks, before allowing other people to interact with your pet, you must warn the other people. Let them make the decision.
For dogs that wear their own backpacks... The owners should be willing and able to add the dog pack to their own if their pet needs a break. They should make sure the pack is sized appropriately (this is often smaller than you, and dog pack manufacturers and retailers, might think). When packing, the bags should be evenly loaded and weighted. The dog should be frequently inspected for packsores. Dogs are less able than their humans to understand that their heavy load will go down as they eat their food. It may be better for the owner to carry the food and make sure the dog just carries a steady weighted load every day.
Dogs paws should be inspected frequently and if the dog is hiking without booties, the owner might want to carry a pair or foursome just in case a problem occurs.
Dogs should be kept away from water sources. One way to do this is to always give the dog water in their own bowl from their own source (bottle). Make sure they are drinking plenty of water, as frequently as they want it. This will reduce their desire to run into a water source before you could otherwise get control of them. When going to a water source from a shelter, leave the dog leashed at the shelter and carry extra water up from the source.
Obviously, the decision to take a dog with you is a serious one. I've seen dogs on the trail that were happy, day after day to keep walking. This was often evident because they had plenty of energy and were happy to come and have their pack put on and keep walking when their owner kept walking. Other dogs were reluctant to respond to their owners in the morning and didn't want to stand still to have their packs put on. They would often follow their owners from camp in the morning only quite reluctantly.
Slackpacking is having your pack driven up the trail for you while you walk the trail without the pack. Some hikers do not want to ever slackpack. That's OK, but your dog can't make that decision. If you are given the opportunity to slackpack, consider giving your dog a break even if you want to carry your pack. Please do not turn your dog into a beast of burden and have them carry your stuff while you slackpack.
If you should decide to take your dog with you, just be aware of the dog and its "mood" and try to be accommodating. I helped one woman off the trail in 2001 or so. She had wanted to do the trail quite specifically "with" the dog but when it was no longer appropriate for the dog to be on the trail, they both did the responsible thing and got off the trail. It was a difficult decision but the right decision for both of them.
Last updated, March 12, 2012.
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