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Photo by Teddy Wingo.

A Good Hiker Dog — How to Prepare for a Great Day on Trail

Some careful prep work can help ensure you and your furry friend have a fabulous time when you hit the trail | By Sandra Saathoff

Hiking with our canine best friends offers powerful benefits for dogs and humans! We all get some exercise and our dogs get to see new things, smell new smells and hang out with their favorite people. It’s important to remember, though, there’s more to it than just grabbing a leash and hitting the trail.

Developing a good hiker dog is a labor of love — and those efforts pay off for our dogs, ourselves and the larger community. Well-behaved dogs are safer on trail — and they are more likely to continue to be welcomed on trail. Dogs that cause problems can ruin someone’s hike — and give all hiking dogs a bad reputation.

Here are some tips to prepare yourself and your dog for a happy and safe day in the great outdoors.

Pup in a jacket. Photo by Heather Rutledge..jpg
Pup keeping warm during a chilly day on trail. Photo by Heather Rutledge.

Be prepared

Training: A good hiker dog is obedient — and that takes training time. Before you hit the trail, plan to work on some of the basic commands: come, sit, stay, leave it. Depending upon your experience, you can take a class or train on your own. Other words that I have found worth the effort of training include “right” and “left,” “up” (to jump a small log, for example), and “easy” or “whoa.” If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your local shelter for recommendations for trainers. (Or go online. Zak George, who has a YouTube series, changed how I thought about doggy education.)

Know the rules: Before you set paws on trail, you need to know (and follow!) the rules, which vary depending on where you are. Some areas prohibit dogs. For those areas where dogs are allowed, WTA suggests dogs stay on leash because it’s safer for the dog and it makes for a better experience for everyone on trail. It also leaves less of an impact on our wild spaces.

Other trail users: Meeting others on trail is an opportunity to show what good citizens our dogs can be. I’d never want to take away from someone else’s good hike — and some people are afraid of dogs. Dogs should always yield to others on trail, be they people, horses or bikes. I like to take my dog several feet off trail and put her in a sit-stay until the other person passes us. When I see someone coming, I look for an appropriate place to get out of the way. The response I’ve gotten that makes me most proud is, “What a good dog!”

Horses: When we meet a horse on trail, we make sure we’re on the downhill slope, so that if the horse has an issue, it can veer uphill, which is safer. As a rider myself, I cannot express enough thanks to people who respect that my horse could be nervous about dogs and give me space.

Dog sitting on boardwalk. Photo by Vignesh Yuvaraj..jpg
Working on obedience before you hike will help a lot once you're out on trail. Photo by Vignesh Yuvaraj.

Other dogs: Meeting other dogs on trail can be complicated. There are times when another hiker with a dog will ask if the pups can exchange pleasantries or just call out “He’s friendly!” as their off-leash dog bounds toward us. I find that it’s safer to decline the interaction. I usually say something like, “We’re practicing our trail manners,” to put the onus on us, rather than suggesting that the other dog might not be friendly.

Getting in shape: Just like humans need to work up to challenging hikes, our dogs need to put in the miles, too. It isn’t fair to expect them to be couch potatoes and then hit the trail for the equivalent of a half-marathon. It’s likely to make them sore and may set them up for injury. If you’re planning to take Fido out for a long, steep or rough hike, plan to spend a few weeks training a few days a week with lower miles and hills so that both of you have the muscle and endurance you need.

Age considerations: Puppies can be injured by hiking too much, too soon. Consult with your veterinarian to discuss when your puppy can start doing trail miles and how to keep them healthy. While your pup is too young for long treks, think of all the months of hiker-dog training you can do in your yard or on short, local trails. Senior dogs may also need slower, shorter hikes.

A hiker walks down a trail with a dog on a leash.
Before you head out with your hiker dog, check on the rules and trail conditions, so you’re prepared. Photo by Angie Tomson. 

What to pack

Lash and collar or harness: Options for trail setups abound. Some dogs prefer a harness instead of a collar. Anti-pulling harnesses are available at most pet stores and are a sensible option if that’s an issue. Leashes come in various lengths; pick what works for you and fits within the rules. Retractable leashes can be a problem on trail. They can get tangled and often don’t meet the length rules.

ID tags: If your pup does gets loose, ID tags can help enable a quick reunion. ID tags can be purchased online, where you purchase your dog license or at pet stores. RoadID.com offers a variety of options at a reasonable price.

Food, treats, water: I carry a bottle and collapsible dish for my dog. Depending on how long we’ll be out, I’ll bring treats and some food for her.

Poo bags: Practice Leave-No-Trace principles by carrying a couple of plastic bags and/or a trowel. Either carry the poo bag out or bury the poo off trail in a proper cat hole. A hard-sided container like an empty peanut butter jar can help if you want a second layer of containment for the poo bag.

First-aid supplies for dogs: Many things in your first-aid kit are also appropriate for your dog: gauze pads, antibacterial ointment, alcohol wipes and Benadryl. Consider adding a few items, including baby socks and medical tape, to keep a bandage in place in case of a paw injury, and a pair of tweezers to remove thorns or ticks. Medication to keep ticks or fleas at bay is also a good idea. Talk to your vet.

dog kevin machtelinckx .jpg
When you pack water, keep your dog in mind, too. Photo by Kevin Machtelinckx. 

Specialized gear for dogs

Most of the time, hiker dog gear is pretty minimal, but there are a few extra items to consider taking, depending on conditions.

For cold weather: Carry a blanket, so that when you stop for lunch, you can give your pup a place to lie down off the snow or cold ground. Some dogs also get snowballs on the hair between their pads. A set of doggy booties can help.

For hot weather: In summer, some dogs overheat more easily than others. If your dog tends to overheat, a cooling vest, which uses evaporative technology, may help. Choosing when or where you hike can also help. I tend to get out early in the morning if it’s going to be hot later.

For rain: Depending on your dog’s coat thickness, they may have a problem staying warm in wet or cold conditions. Some dogs benefit from a raincoat or insulation layer on trail or for breaks.

For carrying gear: Depending on how far you’re going, some people fit their dogs with a pack, so they can carry their own food, water and poo bags.

For backpacking: Remember to bring a pad or blanket to keep your pup warm overnight while they are sleeping.

In case of emergency: If your dog was injured, would you be able to carry them out? Depending upon the size of your dog, you’ll need to have a plan in case that becomes necessary. One option is the Airlift by Fido Pro. It’s an easy-to-use harness to safely carry your dog if they become sick or injured while you’re on trail.

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If you backpack with your dog, remember something to keep them off the cold ground. Photo by Raechel Youngberg. 

Special safety consideration

Safe drinking water: Some lakes are populated with blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria), which is toxic to dogs and can be fatal. It’s best to avoid allowing our pups to drink from or wade into ponds and lakes, especially if algae is visible. Running streams are much safer, as is the water you carry. Even running water, however, can carry risks. Speak with your vet and make sure they know you will be hiking with your pup. Your vet may have recommendations for vaccines or other measures to help keep your dog safe. 

Hiking with your canine family members can be an excellent adventure for all involved with some planning and consideration for others. As you head into the summer hiking season, take stock of your own readiness, perhaps invest in some training time, and then … enjoy the look of joy on your pup’s face when you ask, “Do you want to go for a hike?”

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If you hike in winter, make sure your dog will be warm enough. Photo by Tanner Colton.


Where are dogs allowed?

Here are some general guidelines. Please note this is not a comprehensive list and regulations can be complicated. Call the local ranger station to verify your pup is welcome before heading out on a new trail. Read more at wta.org/dogs.

National parks: Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks (with the exception of the Pacific Crest Trail in North Cascades National Park). In addition, dogs are not allowed on beaches in Olympic National Park, with a few exceptions. Check before you go.

National forests: Dogs are generally permitted on U.S. Forest Service trails. Certain areas, such as the Ingalls Lake Trail, do not permit dogs at all because they are popular locations with fragile ecosystems.

Mount St. Helens: Dogs are not allowed on most trails in the monument.

The Enchantments: No dogs.

Alpine Lakes Wilderness: Dogs must always be on leash on many trails in the popular Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This includes most trails accessed from I-90 and on Highway 2 west of Stevens Pass. Leashes are also required on several popular trails in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Your best bet is to always hike with your dog leashed.

Washington State Department of Natural Resources: Most DNR trails, including Mount Si and Tiger Mountain, require that dogs be on a leash.

Washington State Parks: Dogs are welcome at state parks but must always be on a leash. Dogs are not allowed at swimming beaches.

King County Parks: Dogs must be leashed on all King County trails.

Spokane County: Dogs must be on a leash no longer than 8 feet long at all times when on public property.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.