I believe that trail dog should be a formal training and certification activity, just like a water rescue, search and rescue, carting, agility, etc. As your skills advance and your hikes become increasingly more technical, your dog's training can be the difference between life and death for both of you.
It is inevitable that there will be injuries on the trails, it happens to the best of us. However, many needless injuries from accidents can be avoided. I witnessed several serious and particularly gruesome injuries the summer of 2010, one of which involved a hiker and his dog and required an intensive rescue and Life Flight. I figured I would jot down a few pointers that may help avoid injury to you and your dog. Please keep in mind that I do not proclaim to be a dog trainer or certified in any way to advise anyone on the health and welfare of themselves or their dog. I’m simply writing a few mental notes from one nature lover to another.
Always carry medical supplies for both you and your dog.
Don’t forget that your dog can get injured on the trail as well. Make sure you carry supplies for your dog too. Ask your vet for a list of dog safe trauma supplies and medication. I also recommend the dog CPR course offered by the Red Cross.
Have an evacuation plan.
Try to figure out how you and your dog would get to safety if one or both of you were injured. If you have a large dog like I do, you may have limited options.
Always plan your trip based on your dog’s limitations, not yours.
As much as I joke that Jackson has “four wheel drive”, the fact is that I am able to traverse more extreme terrain than he can, due to equipment and the ability to grab onto things. In the summer, extremely steep inclines, slimy boulders, and loose soil limit him and in the winter solid ice is simply too dangerous at more than a 30-35 degree incline. Always plan your hike around you dog’s limitations and never forget that they do not have the advanced equipment that you may take for granted.
Trust is a two way street.
There is a point in your relationship with your dog in which they will start to trust you against their better judgment. This level of trust will help your dog let you decide the best path to follow and also allow them to traverse terrain that they would normally have no interest in. However, with this trust comes responsibility. Your dog may listen to you against their better judgment and wind up hurting themselves in the process. Again, always plan your trip around your dog’s limitations
Unlike humans, dogs don’t generally tell you when they are in pain. Make sure to examine your dog frequently for signs of injuries or fatigue. If your dog is limping make sure to check their paws and range of motion for clues.
Train your dog to walk ahead, behind, left, and right.
This is one I had some trouble with in the beginning and chances are all dogs will have an issue with at least one of these four commands at first. Some dogs like to lead, some like to follow and mine happened to prefer one side to another. Make sure that your dog will walk where you need them too, when you need them too. You would be surprised how little dogs pay attention to their footing when they are busy paying attention to you. It is your job to tell your dog where you need them to go
Extra weight means less maneuverability.
Just like people, when dogs are overweight or carrying extra weight in a pack, they sacrifice maneuverability and their center of gravity can change drastically. Make sure to take this into account when packing a dog pack and/or planning a trip.
Never hold a leash in a manner that will prevent you from immediately releasing it.
There will eventually be a time when you or your dog needs to take a leap or quicken the pace without warning to keep from slipping. You don’t want your dog tethered to you or vice versa when this happens. For your safety and the safety of your dog, any leash needs to be able to be released in an instant.
Your dog must be trained to stay in place even when distracted by other people or dogs.
This one isn't easy and may not be effective 100% of the time, but it is important for everyone's safety. I find that reinforcement with treats for staying still works very well. It also helps greatly for photos!
Remember to pack food and water for your dog.
Dogs get hungry too! Also, remember, while your dog can generally get away with drinking water that has more bacteria in it than we can, they can still get sick from even the cleanest fastest flowing water. If they are not used to the water in the area, make sure to bring bottled water and/or a bowl to use with your purification system. P.S. Dehydrated dog food and treats are great space savers.
Make sure your dog will allow you to receive medical attention should you get injured.
If your dog is over protective of you when you are in distress, this could prevent you from receiving medical attention, or cause injury to your dog by local authorities. Make sure your dog is approachable in emergency situations.
Never let your dog run free.
So you think your dog is trained well enough trained to hike off a lead? Well, maybe they are, but what about all the other dogs that are aggressive and seem to frequent the trails? What about other predators? What about local wildlife that your dog could disturb? In many of our photos, you will see Jackson without a leash. He is only off a lead for the purpose of that photo and is immediately put back on a leash. Does he need a leash? Probably not, but I don't trust other dogs and there are lot of people out there who are afraid of big dogs.
Hike in the weather your dog is genetically suited for.
If you have a dog that does best in warm weather, don’t take them hiking in subzero temperatures, likewise, don’t take a dog that is bred for the cold hiking in 90 degree weather. For instance, Jackson and I go hiking in the very early morning hours when during the summer, so that he stays comfortable. Also, check your dogs feet frequently when hiking on snow and ice. Dogs' feet may not hold up as well as you would expect in winter conditions. Ice buildup around the toes can cause great discomfort for your dog.
Train your dog to urinate and defecate in the woods, not on the trails.
Does this really need an explanation?
Have your emergency information on your dog.
If someone sees your dog running wild on the trail with a leash attached, chances are they are going to try and grab the leash if your dog doesn’t look incredibly threatening. Next they are going to wonder where the owner is. If you have gotten injured or fallen ill, a photo ID with any relevant medical information is good to keep with your dog. This can be kept in a pack or simply attached as an owner/handler ID card on the dog’s collar.
Find fun ways to build the bond between you and your dog.
After a lot of time together hiking, you will most probably find that almost all of the communication between you and your dog becomes nonverbal. It’s wonderful to have a dog that knows what you’re thinking by some subtle body language. Positive reinforcement with attention and treats are wonderful ways to show your dog that they are meeting your expectations. Negative reinforcement only tells your dog that hiking and camping is not fun or enjoyable.
Respect your dog’s fears and attitude.
If your dog is afraid of something, pay attention! Sure, your dog could just be afraid of a new type of terrain, but your dog’s senses are far more acute than your own. If your dog changes their behavior quickly, it’s in your best interest to investigate why.
Your dog should only greet others on command.
This can be a tough one to teach and reinforce. Jackson had been taught this as part of his service training, but now that he works as a therapy dog and expects attention from strangers, he has a hard time with this on ocassion. I continue to work with him on the trails and for the most part he does well. It is important that your dog always pay more attention to you and the terrain than other people, dogs, or wildlife.
Some days are just plain old bad days.
Sometimes I have to step back and remember that despite his happy-goofy attitude and aim to please, Jackson has bad days just like I do. Every now and then, it is clear he has no interest in being active or does not do as he is told. If his behavior is not anything that could cause either one of us injury, I tend to just let it slide. I have never had any of these instances become repetitive.
Have anything to add? Have any questions? Email us! If we add your hiking tip, you will receive credit for the advice.