Get out with Rover: A guide to hiking and backpacking with dogs

Zula at Moyie Lake Provincial Park in Canada. Zula and her owner often hiked and camped up north frequently before the dog died.
Zula at Moyie Lake Provincial Park in Canada. Zula and her owner often hiked and camped up north frequently before the dog died.

City dogs may seem happy to stroll around the state Capitol or share a backyard romp with a playmate, but odds are they’re daydreaming of crisp mountain air and pine needles beneath their feet.

Many dog breeds get a serious adrenaline rush from putting their paws on a hiking path – one that isn’t replicable in an urban environment, said Linda Mullally, co-author of eight books on hiking with your furry friend, including “Best Dog Hikes Northern California” and “Hiking With Dogs – Becoming a Wilderness-Wise Dog Owner.”

“Once they get a taste of the trail, they’re never the same again,” Mullally said. “All their senses get turned on high. The exercise and the mental stimulation makes them much calmer. We all need to get our edge off, and city dogs don’t always get to do that the way they need to, at least not in the natural way that their ancestors did.”

Northern California happens to be prime territory for adventure dogs, with dozens of state parks and national forests allowing dogs on trails. Whether more trails open up to dogs depends on how well dog owners behave, she said.

“Would I love to see more accessibility to dogs? Absolutely,” Mullally said. “But that will always depend on dog owners and their willingness to be responsible and respect the rules. When we’re hiking on public land, it’s a wildlife habitat. It’s their homes and we’re guests. … (More accessibility) won’t happen until dog owners really start, as a group, start showing a greater sense of responsibility.”

Here are some tips for dog owners on how to make sure you and your pooch are at your best on the trail:

Find the right breed

Not all dogs wag their tails when they see a steep, snowy slope or a long, winding trail.

Some breeds don’t necessarily have the temperament for the outdoors and are happier with the comforts of home. Others, especially small, hefty breeds such as pugs and bulldogs, can’t breathe well enough to take arduous journeys.

Katie Albert, a sales manager at Recreational Equipment Inc. in Sacramento, said she’s always chosen husky mixes because she knows they can match her thirst for the outdoors.

“Being aware of your own dog is important,” she said. “Do they have the capacity and desire to follow you down a trail? Are they going to have shorter legs and overheat too quickly? If they’re too old and they’ve got arthritis, then that’s just mean.”

But never fear – there are plenty of dogs who’ve been bred for centuries to be perfect trail companions. Tibetan terriers, for example, are small but versatile, having been bred as herders in Tibetan monasteries. They are sturdy climbers and do well in the snow. Bernese mountain dogs, as the name implies, are strong, athletic dogs with thick coats. They do well on slopes and in cold weather. There are dozens of other breeds that would prefer the open range to the living room carpet any day.

Train, train, train

Any dog that’s bound for the trail needs to understand basic commands, including sit, stay, heel and other skills that can be taught in obedience class.

They’ll need that foundation when they confront new elements in the outdoors such as other hikers, other dogs, horses, squirrels or even cows, said Mullally, who has trained dogs for the trail.

“In the city you won’t see backpackers with hiking sticks and hats and big packs,” she said. “Those things are all intimidating to a dog and they look very threatening. We have the dogs get used to the equipment around the house.”

Many popular hiking trails require dogs be kept on leashes. Mullally recommends that owners keep dogs leashed anyway on trails without the requirement, to protect them from irritating larger animals that could hurt them. Owners who do want to hike with dogs off-leash should be 100 percent confident in a dog’s ability to respond to voice commands, she said.

Albert said she had her last dog, a husky mix named Zula, trained to return to her on her distinctive whistle, no matter what.

Still, she wouldn’t take Zula off leash unless she felt it was safe for the dog and other animals.

“A lot of trails that I go on are kind of in the middle of nowhere and it’s OK to bring dogs,” she said. “But I’m very aware of whether a place is wildlife protected.”

Get in gear

Playing dress-up with your dog might seem silly, but having the right accessories can make the difference between an excellent trail day and a miserable one.

Footwear is important, especially for dogs that are new to hiking, Mullally said. Rocky paths and even coarse sand can make a dog’s paws tender after just a few miles. It’s a good idea to get a pair of doggy boots to protect the pads of their feet. Always let the dog practice in those boots at home before taking them on a long trip, she said.

“If your dog is used to just walking around the block, going to the dog park, then his feet won’t be used to the terrain and it could be very abrasive to the paws,” she said. “It happens quickly, and next thing you know your dog is slowing down. And if you don’t have booties, you’re going to end up carrying your dog.”

It’s also a good idea to get your dog his or her own fitted backpack. Dogs should only carry between a quarter and a third of their own weight in the pack, Mullally said. Dogs with heavy packs will become tired and overheated easily and will require more water and more frequent breaks.

People should also pack lots of water, doggie bags for dog waste and cold compresses for hot days.

Some dogs can be affected by altitude sickness, so owners should look out for signs of lethargy such as slow pace or a tucked tail.

“Dogs can’t tell us when something’s wrong,” Mullally said. “They’re always so eager to please. There are many stories about dogs who are too eager to please and owners who weren’t as attentive as they should have been. Their tails, their ears, their eyes are body language signs to pay attention to.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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