It’s no secret to those of us who love the outdoors that dogs are the ultimate adventure companions! Honest and true, hard working and dependable, it’s no wonder that dogs have earned the reputation of “man’s best friend”. I’m lucky to have two incredible mini-goldendoodles that make my life, and my outdoor exploration, a never ending parade of laughs, fun, and adventure. I’ve been getting a lot of comments and questions from people who are looking to bring their dogs on the sorts of adventures Isla and Lilly get to experience on a regular basis. I figured it would be best to put together a post detailing the process from puppy to trail warrior! We received Isla as a tiny puppy, and Lilly as a 6 month old rescue. It has been incredible to work with two dogs that have very different personalities and have experienced very different childhoods.
**I am not a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer, so all of this advice is coming from a lifetime dog owner with selective breed exposure (only golden retrievers, vizslas, and goldendoodles). Make sure to consult a veterinarian before beginning any exercise or outdoor program with your pooch.**
- I. Getting Started: Finding a Dog and Raising a Puppy
- II. Training and Fitness: How To Train Your Dog for the Trails
- III. Planning and Preparation: How to Plan Your Adventures and Bring the Right Gear
I. Getting Started: Finding a Dog and Raising a Puppy
The first thing you’ll need to do if you’re interested in having an adventure companion, is to STOP and THINK. Take at least 6 months to a year to consider if a dog will truly fit into your life. This is a lifetime commitment. Dogs are not toys! Dogs are living and breathing non-human people, with heartbeats and highly evolved emotions. If you’re just looking to get a dog on a whim, or because you think it will be fun, I can’t say this strongly enough, DO NOT get a dog!! Dogs require a lot of love, exercise, affection, training, and attention. Dogs will make a mess of your house, chew on things that are important to you, and go to the restroom on your favorite rug without proper training and exercise. Dogs require quality food, clean water, medical care, and a place in your house that they can call “home”. If you’re not ready for a dog to live with you, and think it’s acceptable to leave your pet chained, leashed, and/or living outside, I repeat, DO NOT get a dog.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about puppies. If you’re looking to add a dog to the family, I would strongly suggest looking at shelters first. I understand that this is not for everyone, and many would like to choose a specific breed and raise the dog as a puppy. If you have a rescue, or a dog older than 1 year, skip ahead to section II. For those of you looking to get a puppy and are unsure which breed to get, do some serious research and do not buy a dog from a puppymill. Those who tell you that all breeds are the same are not being honest in my humble opinion. Dogs have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to fine tune certain physical and behavioral traits. This is very important when finding the right lifetime companion. I’ve seen in my experience that many breeds can handle the physical demands of hiking and backpacking, but there are obviously certain breeds that perform better than others. Isla and Lilly are only 29 and 22 lbs respectively, so don’t think this is only an activity for the big dogs.
The first thing I look at and talk about when discussing dogs is disposition. To me, nothing is more important. I won’t get too much into it, but below I’ll list the top six breeds I’d recommend as pure breds or mixed as mutts. Mixed breed dogs are great, and tend to be more healthy long term, when compared to pure bred dogs.
- Goldendoodle/Labradoodle- These dogs are just Golden Retrievers and Labs mixed with a poodle. They are incredibly friendly, highly athletic, great with adults, children, and other dogs. I’m completley biased here, as I have two myself, and have loved every single doodle I’ve ever interacted with.
- Golden Retriever- A strong hiker, very athletic, great disposition. Great with kids and people. Great with other dogs.
- Australian Shepherd- A very strong hiker, highly athletic, so intelligent they can be seen as mischievous. Great with adults, very good with children if socialized early. Good with other dogs.
- Labrador Retriever- A strong hiker, powerful swimmers, incredibly friendly, great with adults and children. Great with other dogs.
- Siberian Husky- Strong and powerful hiker in all conditions, a strong sense of self and independent can be difficult for those lacking the skill and time to train, good with adults, so-so with children, be careful around smaller dogs.
- Border Collie- These dogs have incredible intelligence and endless stamina. They require a very active lifestyle.
Honorable mention: Vizsla, Weimaraner, Portuguese Water Dog, German Shorthaired Pointers, Australian Cattle Dog, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog
Most puppies are ready to come home at 12 weeks. If you’re getting a puppy, plan on being very patient. I would recommend not even taking your dog on walks outside until it’s had all of it’s shots. It’s just not worth it to risk your little bundle of joy picking something up. The other side of the patience involves the physical development of you dog. It’s important to allow your dog time to grow and adjust to their changing body without putting intense physical demands on them. Instead, use this time to drill your dog on etiquette and training. Focus on the simple commands like come, sit, and stay, as they will be vitally important when you transition into trail training and and trail recall.
II. Training and Fitness: How To Train Your Dog for the Trails
Just like the human body, dogs require training and a gradual fitness regimen before taking on bigger tasks. You wouldn’t expect a human to run a marathon without training, so don’t expect that out of your dog. Isla and Lilly are now capable of hiking upwards of 15 miles at high elevation with 5000ft or more of elevation gain, but that’s not how we got started.
1.) Phase 1: Months 0-8
As I mentioned before, make sure your dog has all of their shots and is at least 1 year old before beginning phase 1. For me, the first step to getting your dog ready for the trail involves discipline. A well trained dog will make your life easy, and also maintain the quality of enjoyment for others on the trial. I’m a huge proponent of positive training methods, and would strongly discourage violence, force, or aggression in training a pet. I know some people seem to get an ego boost out of being an alpha over their dog, but I’ve found that treating mine like a cherished member of the family goes a lot further. I’m still stern and direct when needed, but I much prefer to reward for positive behavior than to punish for negative. This is critical for training a dog on the trail, as you want them to want to be around you!! You also will want your dog to have great recall and return to you when they’re called to do so. This is not going to happen if your dog is afraid of you.
I started on Isla with short walks around the block. I always had a pocket full of treats. Every 20 feet or so, I would call her name and give her a treat. She learned that responding to her name had a positive outcome. She now does this without treats even when she’s wandering far away. I’ve also trained her to do this with a three tone whistle. My training ramped up by using this method at the dog park, in stores, and in crowded places. Isla now knows to focus on me and listen to my voice. When I say “Isla” or give a three tone whistle, she knows to look for me and run to my feet for a reward. This has come in handy many times on the trail when other dogs are approaching or when I feel a certain section might not be safe.
You also need to make sure to socialize your dog! They will be coming into contact with many humans, dogs and other forms of wildlife. Their first time having this exposure should not be on the trail. This will ruin the experience for you and your dog, as well as making it difficult for all of the people you come across.
As a hiker, trail runner, and advocate for the outdoors, I’ve joined the chorus in preaching ‘Leave No Trace’. This goes for our pets, too! It’s not just about cleaning up your dogs waste. Don’t let your dog disrupt wildlife by chasing down things like squirrels, and don’t let your dog dig up burrows or dens. This is where training and recall are vitally important.
This first phase of training is also a great opportunity to build stamina and work with your dog on a leash. Isla and Lilly both started out very well in phase one, and learned all of their basic commands very quickly. Do not move to phase 2, until your dog has mastered phase one. Mastery in my eyes would be a dog that sits and stays on command, shows no aggression towards dogs or humans, turns and runs to you when you call their name, and is able to finish a one mile walk without stopping.
2.) Phase 2: Months 8-12
Now that your dog has all of the behavioral skills needed to coexist with humans and other animals on the trail, it’s time to start building up their stamina and strength. Much like humans, you’ll want to do this very slowly. Make sure to give your dog plenty of rest after their big weekend hike. If they still have a lot of energy after, opt for a day of sprints and frisbee at the park. Crosstraining works great for dogs, too! Below you’ll find a training calendar that I would recommend. Also make sure to refer to the third and final section of this post to read about the gear, food, and water, you’ll want to bring along for all of your K-9 outdoor adventures.
First month: Short walks T-Th, 5 Mile Weekend Hikes Every Other Week
Second month: Short walks T-Th, 8 Mile Weekend Hikes Every Other Week
Third month: Short walks T-Th, 5 Mile Weekend Hikes Every Week
Fourth month: Short walks T-Th, 8 Mile Weekend Hikes Every Week
After that forth month, your dog will be ready for just about anything in that 10-15 mile range. Make sure to continue mixing in the cross-training and weekday walks to maintain their stamina and strength.
The most important part of training is listening to your dog and keeping a close eye! On Isla’s first big 8 mile hike, she got a little tired on the way up. Even though we wanted to reach the summit, this hike was about her. Keep this in mind, from now on the hikes are about your dog and not about you. After that first hike, Isla has never stopped, and now drags me along when I’m feeling tired. Lilly was a little more of challenge. Being a rescue, she was very malnourished and underdeveloped. On her first 3 or 4 hikes, she hitched a ride in my backpack and worked her way into the outdoor life slowly. She’s a mountain champ now though!
III. Planning and Preparation: How to Plan Your Adventures and Bring the Right Gear
Planning and preparing for your dog to join you on an adventure requires just as much care and diligence as planning an outdoor adventure for yourself. Your dog can’t access Google to research weather patters, or know how much food and water to bring along for a certain trail. Do not short change your dog and make them suffer for your laziness and stupidity. Make sure to spend extra time planning and preparing for every trip you bring you dog on. Below, you’ll find my essentials for a day hike and/or backpacking trip:
- Water: The size of your dog will determine how much.
- Food and Treats: Like water, the size of your dog will determine how much is needed.
- Bowl: For food and water
- Flea and Tick Prevention: We use Frontline Plus
- Up To Date Vaccinations
- Tweezers: For ticks
- Paw care: I like Musher’s Secret, but boots are another option if it’s not too hot
- Exit Strategy: Julia and I carry backpacks that would enable us to carry both dogs out
- Harness: Much safer for dogs as a collar can hurt their neck
- Dog Backpack: Isla and Lilly are too small for these, but if you have a big dog, they can carry all their own stuff.
- Leash: Make sure the leash is strong, durable, and comfortable for the dog
- Insect repellent: I go for the all natural stuff
- Lights, Bells, or Reflection: Make sure you’ll be able to spot and track your dog if they get away
- ID Tags, Microchip, Photo ID: Just incase your dog runs off or gets lost
- Poop Bags: Make sure to pack out your dogs waste. Leave no trace.
- Jacket: Waterproof and warm layers depending on the weather
- Life Jacket: If you’ll be near the ocean or a lake
- First Aid Kit: Yes, just like humans, dogs require first aid as well
- Sleeping Warmth: A sleeping bag might be best for a big dog, we bring extra down jackets for Isla and Lilly as they’re small enough to be fully covered
- Sleeping Pad: Make sure to bring a sleeping pad to keep your dog comfortable and off of the hard, cold, or rocky earth
At first I was hesitant to review the dog gear that I purchased for Isla and Lilly, as I didn’t think there would be much of an audience. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of dogs on the trail who look cold, and sadly unprepared. It’s clearly no fault of their own, and maybe their owners just don’t know how much functional gear is out there for their pups. When I started hiking with Isla, I vowed that I wouldn’t spare any expenses for her that I wasn’t willing to forego myself. If it’s not something you would expect a child to go without, don’t expect your dog to go without.
Isla and Lilly’s Pack list (*All affiliate links help support Trail to Peak*):
- Ruffwear Webmaster Harness
- Ruffwear Hoopie Collar
- Ruffwear Cloudchaser Jacket
- Musher’s Secret Paw Protector
- Frontline Plus Flea and Tick Prevention
- Tweezerman Tick Tweezers
- Collapsing Dog Bowls
- CORE Wellness Dog Food – Isla and Lilly love the wild game, ocean, and small breed formulas
- Natural Balanec Mini Rewards
- Hands Free Dog Leash
- Dog Waste Bags
- Outward Hound Life Jacket
- Chuck It Launcher and Balls
Once you’ve done all of your trail planning and gear preparation, you’re ready to hit the trial. There are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind, when you’re ready to begin your hike. Simple Rules to Follow:
- Keep your dog on a leash: There are certain places where you can go off leash, but make sure your dog is very well trained and has your full confidence
- 1 to 1 ratio: One dog per human
- Keep your dog away from standing water
- Leave no trace
- Take planned breaks
- Only go on trails that allow dogs
After the trip, make sure to do a full head to toe check of your dog. Keep an eye out for fleas, ticks, hot spots, bite marks, burrs, cut paws, or irritations. If your dog has a tick, do not squeeze the tick. Get your tweezers and remove it from the point of contact.
I hope you’ve found my guide to hiking and backpacking with your dog useful. Make sure to leave me a comment or your thoughts in the section provided below. I’d love to hear how others have planned and prepped their dogs for outdoor adventures. Also, feel free to ask any questions you may have. Being a dog parent is one of the most rewarding things humans can do, make sure to enjoy every moment of it!