Igor the dog came into our lives in November of 2016 at about a year old. My husband and I adopted him as a stray from a shelter in Fort Worth, Texas. He was skinny and looked even skinnier with his HUGE head. Along with his short legs, the name “Igor” was a perfect fit.
With some research and communication with the shelter on his medium energy level, we knew he was the adventure dog we were looking for. We just didn’t know how we’d get there.
Most of my friends have dogs and I’ve been on several hikes and backpacking adventures with them. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when you hike with a dog - not only the fun and reward, but the hard work and mishaps.
But nothing could prepare us for owning our first dog together. After Igor settled in, we started working with a professional dog trainer to get us where he needed to be for obedience and off-leash recall. It took a lot of time, patience, consistency, and hard work - and worth every penny.
It’s been almost 3 years now and small hikes have turned into trail running, mountain biking and splitboarding with Igor. No matter what we do, we’re always learning and progressing together - on and off the trail. Through my experience, I’ve accumulated some helpful tips for hiking with dogs; these tips may help expand you and your dog into other outdoor activities.
1. Do your research:
Can your dog handle the terrain? Is the trail typically busy on the day you want to go? What is the weather going to be like - will it be hot, cold, raining, and/or snowing? How long is the trail and how long do you estimate you’ll be out for? Are dogs allowed and are they allowed off-leash?
All these questions can help you be prepared for what to pack (see #3) to ensure your dog’s safety.
2. Start small and keep building
Start with a short trail or small peak with fewer distractions; try a day during the week when the trail is not so busy. Then, you can build up to longer hikes, based on your dog’s fitness and endurance. Mt. Philo (on-leash) was a great start for Igor, then we eventually built up to Snake Mountain, Burnt Rock and Hunger Mountain. Mt. Mansfield via Laura Cowles / Sunset Ridge has been the largest hike so far as well as a 2 day backpacking trip around Stratton Pond, VT. Igor did great on both because we knew he could do it physically, after gradually building up to that distance and difficulty.
And also remember to keep building on your dog’s training (and recall if they are off-leash). There is always something to work on!
3. Be prepared and what to pack
The most important thing to pack is water - make sure you bring water even if it’s a short hike and you know there is a water source and/or it’s cold out. Next: food/treats, collapsible bowl, poop bags (always pick up and pack out), dog first aid kit, tick key, bear bell, and any additional clothing if needed (like bright orange during hunting season). Always bring a map, headlamp, cell phone with battery portable charger.
It’s also essential that your dog has a collar with ID tags. Even if your dog is off-leash and has perfect recall, remember to bring a leash. Some mountains require your dog to be leashed at the top and it’s good practice and etiquette. You might also want to consider a dog pack, which will keep your pack a little lighter and all your dog gear in one spot.
Before we leave the car, I always make sure Igor has a chance to drink water, spray some natural bug spray on him, and then encourage him to poop at the beginning of the trail so I don’t have to carry it!
When we return to the car, I always offer Igor water, check for ticks or any cuts on his paws/body. An old towel is a good idea for those muddy or wet days before getting back in the car.
4. Not everyone wants to say “hi” to your dog.
This is a big one for me. Not all people like dogs and not all dogs like other dogs (especially on leash). I also know a lot of kids who are scared of dogs - remember, dogs can be right at their level.
How many times have you heard “Oh, he’s friendly!”? Well, what if the person, kid, or dog on the other end is not comfortable with your dog? This could result in an uncomfortable situation for that person or even a fight between dogs.
Regardless of who you come across on the trail, always ask. “Are you OK with dogs?”, “Is your dog friendly?”, “Are your kids OK with dogs?”. Even if it’s OK to say “hi” - know your dog and set boundaries.
I once had a gentleman inform me his wife was terrified of dogs - thank you for letting me know! I quickly put Igor on a leash and kept my distance as we passed. Every dog and person has a right to be on the trail without the fear of another dog coming up to them.
5. If your dog is off-leash, always keep them within your sight
Always make sure you can see your dog and keep them close. Once your dog has mastered “come” and “wait”, off-leash “heel” might be a good command to work on. We are working on this now - Igor knows “heel” on-leash already, but off-leash “heel” is a little more challenging.
This allows for you to keep your dog under control when you see other people, dogs, kids, and wildlife. And is necessary if your dog poops in the woods - you need to know where to find it and pack it out.
Be aware of how your dog reacts to wildlife and do not allow them to chase. Keep them on the trail, away from the temptation to go after wildlife. This advice comes from experience and a mishap of ours. On a hike a few years ago, Igor was ahead of us, out of our sight and chased after two deer. We got him back, but it was a nerve wracking 20 minutes of him lost in the woods. Lesson learned - we now make sure he is close at all times.
Igor has come such a long way - both with obedience and adventuring. I’ve learned so much from both my own experiences as well as others in the dog community. I am constantly amazed with how well Igor has done on the trail, it has been such a rewarding and fun experience and only getting better.
We both thoroughly enjoy the outdoors together and I hope these tips will help make your dog’s transition to a trail dog easier and less stressful! Please feel free to pass them on and let me know if you have any suggestions, questions, or concerns.
- Michelle Peters, Skirack