Hiking with dogs is fun! I love hiking and especially enjoy bringing my dogs along. My hikes usually last anywhere from four to twelve hours and include significant elevation changes over distance in remote locations.
During my excursions into the wild, I learned a lot about hiking from an experienced friend; my regular hiking partner. I also made my own observations regarding human and canine needs on the trails.
My regular hiking companion Sylvester, a German Shepherd, is over ten years old but still a very strong hiker. We go on at least one hike per week. Our hikes last four to eight hours, cover a distance of five to ten miles, and can include elevation changes of 2000-4000 feet.
Searching the internet, you can find many resources for human hikers, but comprehensive information for canine hiking companions is hard to locate. Most articles seem to center around bringing enough water and taking breaks. These points are of course important but there is much more to consider. Some things are fairly obvious when bringing a dog on a hike but many are not so straightforward. The goal of this article is to close that gap.
I reference several products I use for my dogs throughout the article. You can find a full product list at the end. Most products include links to Amazon or other online retail stores.
I'm writing this based on my own experiences but certainly don't claim to know everything. I invite any experienced hikers to share their canine hiking suggestions. I'm happy to enhance this article in the future with any valuable information others may have to offer on the subject.
The first question you should ask yourself is if your dog is suitable to accompany you on the kind of hike you're planning. Most toy breeds don't have much stamina and will not be able to endure multiple hours on the trail. In my view, dogs from the sporting group, herding group, and all working dogs are generally best suited for endurance activities. The more energy your dog has, the better it will do on the trail.
However, before a dog can handle longer hikes, it needs to build up its endurance to do so—just like we do. I recommend you take your dog on shorter, conditioning hikes to build up its endurance. Start with a ninety-minute to a two-hour round trip. Once your dog is doing well with that duration, increase by one-hour increments until your dog can handle the type of hiking you're planning.
The same applies to elevation changes, start with increases of 1000 feet at first and build up from there. Keep a close eye on your dog to ensure it is adjusting well.
The overall condition of your dog obviously has a great impact on its ability to perform during endurance activities. Veterinarians use a standardized body condition scoring point system to evaluate the overall condition of a dog. A body condition score of five (out of nine) is ideal for most endurance dogs to prevent fatigue and joint-related problems associated with carrying excessive body weight. You can review the most common nine-point scoring system here: World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).
If your dog is new to hiking pay special attention to its paws. Many people believe that a dog's paws are virtually indestructible. And while they can certainly withstand a lot, that is unfortunately not the case. I had a German Shepherd's paw pads come off during a ninety-minute hike on a dirt road where my other dogs had no problems the week prior. Therefore, I recommend you spend time conditioning and hardening your dog's paws before you embark on longer hikes in more remote locations.
I have experimented with dog boots to protect my dog's paws in rougher terrain but couldn't get them to stay on well. I will probably try again in the future with Ruff Wear Grip Trex Dog Boots but for now, I have switched to using a paw protection cream instead and I'm happy with that. Musher's Secret Pet Paw Protection Wax is my favorite so far. I have been applying Musher's Secret to my dog's paws prior to hikes for years and it definitely provides additional protection.
Backpacks and Carrying Weight
Once your dog has built up some endurance, it is also a good idea to get it accustomed to wearing a backpack to be able to carry its own food and water. Generally, a dog can safely carry up to 10% of its body weight. You can find references for up to 25% of a dog's body weight being safe to carry, but for harsher terrain and significant elevation changes, I would recommend keeping it around 10% so your dog doesn't get too tired too quickly.
Example: A 60-pound dog can safely carry around six pounds of weight, which can translate to six bottles of water, equaling about three liters. That would be a good amount for a four-to-six-hour hike. More on that later.
Picking the Right Backpack
I recommend getting a good quality dog backpack to carry the load. You can find decent models on Amazon for around $40. Cheaper ones tend to lack padding and won't stay in place once your dog starts moving. If you are a frequent hiker it makes sense to invest in a high-quality dog backpack just like you invest in a high-quality backpack for yourself. One of the nicer I've seen is from Cesar Millan. It has straps to prevent items from moving around and shifting weight unpredictably and it comes with separate compartments for poop bags and other things you may want your dog to carry. This backpack also rests higher up on your dog's body to avoid putting too much weight on the middle of the spine—a dog is not a horse and this helps protect its back. It costs around $100.
Similar to human backpacks, proper padding in the right places makes a big difference over longer periods of time. To prevent your dog from being uncomfortable and getting sore spots, pay special attention to where the straps are touching your dog's body and if they are protecting its skin sufficiently.
While hiking in nature you will encounter other animals, some of which can pose a life-threatening danger to you and your dog—rattlesnakes are on the top of that list. Without knowing better, a moving snake is a fascinating animal for a dog to pursue but that tends to end poorly. I live in Southern California where we can encounter six different types of rattlesnakes. In Northern California, you usually encounter only two different types, and in the rest of the United States usually only one type of rattlesnake. However, when you go to other states like Florida you will also encounter black mambas and other poisonous snakes that don't exist anywhere else.
I highly recommend taking your dog to rattlesnake avoidance training before going hiking together. During this training, your dog learns to stay away from the sight, the sound, and the smell of a rattlesnake.
Rattlesnake Avoidance Training
It is important to attend rattlesnake avoidance training in the area you're living in and/or hiking in. That way you ensure that your dog is trained with the breeds of rattlesnakes you will encounter on the trail. Those will vary by area but in most cases will include the Western Diamondback, (North and Southern) Pacific, and Mojave rattlesnakes. This kind of training has the additional advantage that your dog will also act as a rattlesnake warning system and help keep you safe. Read more at Rattlesnake Season is Here.
You may have seen rattlesnake vaccines for dogs being offered by your veterinarian but I advise against them. For one they have a higher risk of serious side effects than other dog vaccinations but even more importantly do not protect your dog from rattlesnake poison. These vaccinations only give you additional time to get your dog to a veterinarian to administer the anti-venom. However, for the Northern Pacific rattlesnake they are mostly useless, and for the Southern Pacific rattlesnake totally useless. Read more at Rattlesnake Avoidance Training vs. Rattlesnake Vaccine
The same effect can be achieved with Benadryl. In case of a snakebite give your dog Benadryl. The standard tablets contain 25 mg of Diphenhydramine each, and the number of tablets required depends on body weight. This information can be found on the product packaging and is the same for humans as for dogs. For example, if your dog weighs sixty pounds you would give the same number of 25 mg tablets you would give to a sixty-pound person. As your dog probably doesn't swallow pills voluntarily, I recommend you become familiar with how to make a non-cooperative dog swallow a tablet. I also bring a few pill pockets and would try that first.
Benadryl is also advisable as an emergency response to a human rattlesnake bite.
Dogs need constant access to water while they exercise. That is no different when you're hiking. The longer you hike, the warmer it gets, or the higher you go, the more water your dog needs. A dog easily needs the same amount of water that a person twice that weight would need during the same hike. I usually bring a Water Rover with me so I can easily give my dog water without having to take my backpack off each time. In my experience, it is best to offer your dog water every 15-20 minutes or so. Studies in sedentary dogs suggest maintenance water requirements are between 0.6 and 1mL/kcal. Working dogs require more water.
Example: An 84-pound dog requires 2592 kcal/day embarking on a 4-hour hike (see Food section for calculation). This means the water requirement is above the sedentary minimum of 0.6mL/kcal * 2592 kcal/day = 1.5L/day. In my experience doubling this amount is a good approach. In this scenario, I would bring about 3 liters (101.5 fl oz) of water for my dog or six 500mL (16.9 fl oz) bottles.
Dog Can't Cool Themselves By Sweating
Dogs only sweat negligibly through their paws. Their main way of regulating their body temperature is through panting, regular consumption of water, moving to the shade as well as digging holes to lie down in. If your dog starts pawing the ground, it is definitely time for a break and more water.
Many people push themselves and don't drink water as often as they should because they don't feel they have to. Early stages of dehydration are easily ignored as they don't lead to exertion quickly. Dogs are smarter in that regard. They know when it's time to rest and drink. If your dog starts panting more heavily, give it water. Similarly, if your dog starts moving from shady spot to shady spot, give it water. Or, if your dog starts pawing the ground to access cooler soil to lie down in, give it water.
The hotter it gets, the more rest stops you will need to make and the more water you will have to bring. A good way to plan is to bring twice the amount of water you will need for yourself. If your trail has freshwater sources, you can scale back the water you're bringing and carry a water pump with a filter instead. That way you can refill your drinking bladder on the way and your dog can drink right from the stream.
Taking Breaks and Eating Soil
If your dog starts digging and licking the soil it needs more minerals. High-intensity activities require more replenishment than a lazy day. I use dog power bars designed for active dogs to provide extra nutrition and energy on the trail. I find that TurboPup has the right kind of nutrition for hikes and my dog gets a bar whenever I take a break to eat a snack myself.
When I hike with my dog I usually take a short (5 minute) snack break every hour. When I am by myself I often just take a GU Power Gel and keep going. With a younger dog you may find that to be unnecessary so pay attention to your dog's behavior. Your furry friend will let you know if it needs a break. With enough breaks, even older dogs like my 10-year old Sylvester can hike longer and be okay. However, regardless of what your dog indicates, I recommend offering water every twenty minutes as mentioned above.
TurboPup also has the right composition of protein, fat, and carbohydrates for endurance activities. They did their homework when creating this product. More on that below.
When we hike, we require more nutrition to sustain our energy. As we sweat we need to replenish our electrolytes (sodium, calcium, magnesium, and so on). We also require more carbohydrates, which for most people, is the primary source of energy. The need for more nutrition on hikes is no different for our dogs but the kind of extra nutrition your dog needs is very different from that of a human.
This section of the article is how this project started as I wanted to figure out what food to feed Sylvester on the trail. I am providing a lot of detail on the various elements of nutrition but understand if the below has too much detail for some. For this reason, I started with a short summary of the food section.
Nutrition for Working and Service Dogs
I derived much of the following information from the research paper "Nutrition for Working and Service Dogs" by Joseph Wakshlag (DVM Ph.D.) and Justin Shmalberg (DVM) published in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, Volume 44, Issue 4, July 2014, Pages 719-740. It can be obtained at ScienceDirect.com. If you want to dive in deeper I recommend you spend the $36 dollars and obtain your own copy.
The energetic potential of a diet is commonly reported in kilocalories (kcal). Metabolizable energy (ME) as reported on pet food labels refers to the dietary energy remaining after factoring in energy loss in urine, feces, and gases. Current pet food regulations use the modified Atwater factors to estimate food energy which assigns protein and carbohydrate a ME value of 3.5 kcal/g and fat a ME value of 8.5 kcal/g. However, the actual ME is principally determined by dietary fat and by the total dietary fiber content of a diet.
Endurance dogs require higher fat diets to fuel mitochondrial biogenesis and to enhance oxidative phosphorylation capacity. The National Research Council (NRC) has established energy requirements for dogs based on available scientific literature and a multiplication factor is applied to the exponential equation for metabolic body weight (MBW: [kg body weight] ^0.75) to determine the energy expenditure for dogs in different conditions.
The NRC estimates that active pet dogs require 130 x MBW kcal/day for maintenance energy requirements. Depending on the activities this requirement increases further. The additional increase can be as low as 5% - 10% for racing Greyhounds and up to 800% for endurance sled dogs. For 3-4 hours of hiking a 30% increase is probably good and for 8-12 hours hiking a 50% increase is desirable.
Example: Calorie requirements for an 84-pound dog on a 4-hour hike
|84 lb * 0.453592 = 38.10 kg||[conversion to kg]|
|38.10 kg 0.75 = 15.34 MBW||[metabolic body weight]|
|15.34 MBW * 130 = 1993.66 kcal/day||[active dog base level]|
|1993.66 kcal/day *1.3 (30% increase) = 2591.76 kcal/day||[calories on hiking day]|
For dogs, the distance traveled is far more relevant to increased energy consumption than the intensity of the activity.
The following factors increase energy consumption in hiking further:
- Ambient temperature
- Thermal stress (mitigated by panting)
- Variability of the terrain
- Uneven footing
When hiking in the mountains you can assume an additional increased caloric need of 25 - 50% for your dog.
For endurance working dogs, the food composition should be more than 30% protein, more than 20% fat, and restricting carbohydrates to 30% or lower. Fat, however, is the key to sustaining energy during endurance activities. For example, sled dog diets will go as high as 70% fat and almost no carbohydrates. So, keep protein intake around 30% and increase fat and decrease carbohydrates the more extraneous the hike is for your dog.
Protein requirements are really a requirement for essential amino acids in the diet. Endurance dogs should receive about 30% of ME from highly digestible animal-source protein. Soy-based protein is to be avoided.
Overall carbohydrate intake for endurance dogs should be kept under 30% of ME. Studies have shown some benefits with post-exercise carbohydrate loading for multi-day activities but it is generally not recommended.
Electrolytes and Minerals
Minerals can be classified into major minerals and trace minerals. Deficiencies in major minerals can occur when feeding non-traditional diets. All-meat or raw feeding without bones can lead to calcium and phosphorus deficiencies. In the case of such diets, it is recommended to add bone or bone meal. However, when feeding breed-specific diets or high-quality commercial diets this shouldn't be an issue. No deficiencies in other major minerals like sodium, potassium, and chloride have ever been reported in working dogs.
Also, the main way your dog cools itself during exercise is through panting. Panting does not lead to a loss of electrolytes like sweating in humans does. Therefore, electrolyte supplementation is neither necessary nor beneficial. In addition, no deficiencies of trace minerals like copper, zinc, iron, manganese, iodine, or selenium in athletic canine have been reported and as such supplementation of those is also not necessary.
Vitamins are classified as either fat-soluble or water-soluble and required for normal energy metabolism. Most pet foods contain these vitamins far above the required minimums so there is no need for additional supplementation.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Significant attention with respect to decreasing the clinical signs associated with osteoarthritis, reducing inflammation, supporting joint and muscle recovery after activities, and improving overall well-being in dogs. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. All working dogs—but geriatric dogs in particular—benefit from supplementation. EPA and DHA are found in fish oils and combined EPA and DHA supplementation of roughly 2.5 to 4.0 g/1000 kcal in a diet for older dogs is recommended. One study of a therapeutic joint diet found the greatest benefit in 7.5 g/1000 kcal of EPA and DHA. When supplementing fish oil keep in mind that this increases caloric intake and adjustments to the base diet are sensible. Fish oil contains about 9 calories per gram and one teaspoon adds approximately 45 calories to the diet. A good product is Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet Oil Supplement.
- Body Condition Scoring System (9-point)
- Musher's Secret Pet Paw Protection Wax
- Cesar Millan Dog Backpack
- Caliber Dog Tactical Molle Vest
- Caliber Dog MOLLE bag
- Ruff Wear Grip Trex Dog Boots
- Rattlesnake Avoidance Training (Southern California)
- Pill Pockets
- Water Rover
- Orijen Regional Red Dry Dog Food
- Nutrition for Working and Service Dogs
- Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet Oil Supplement
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