I think a dog's favorite words to hear are, "Do you wanna go for a walk? Do ya?" I know that when my dog hears those words the exuberance vibrates through his whole body.
Hiking can be a great alternative to walking, especially for those of us who have high energy, young dogs who need lots of exercise. However, prior to going out on your hike with your canine companion there are a few things you should know.
First, before you even leave your home, make sure you have the proper gear. The most important item to have on your dog is current identification tags. Make sure that your tag/microchip information is current in the unlikely event that you should get separated from your dog. I know of a dog that fled the scene of a car accident due to fear, was not wearing any identification and was lost. Luckily, weeks later the canine was reunited with its owner.
Other items that are necessary to have while hiking are water for you and your dog, a way for your dog to ingest the water (collapsible bowl), tweezers, a long enough leash so that your canine companion can take in some good sniffs but not slow you down, and a sturdy collar that fits properly (not too tight, but not too loose). Generally, if you can fit only two fingers under the collar, it is a good fit.
Second, many dogs love to chase rabbits, lizards and even coyotes so always keep your dog safely on leash. While it may be difficult to resist the temptation to take advantage of the solitude and open spaces hiking may provide, some dogs, if let off leash, can get so caught up in chasing that they lose track of where they are and where you are and get lost. There are far too many dogs in shelters simply due to getting lost. Again, be sure your dog is tagged just in case you are separated from your canine companion. Another reason to keep your dog on a leash is coyotes and rattlesnakes. One bite from a rattlesnake and your dog's life may be in serious danger. Also, small dogs can be carried off by a coyote or owl.
Please be wary of cactus, especially cholla. Your dog has padded feet but sometimes there are thorns on the trail that you or your dog may not see. I was hiking recently and a man had his dog off leash. The dog's mouth and paws were covered in cholla. If you have ever been stuck by one of these desert devils you know this is very painful. Often dogs will use their mouth to remove the thorns and then get the thorns stuck in their mouth. Trying to get thorns out of a dog's mouth is not an easy task. This dog did not appear to be in pain but had visible cholla in her tongue and feet. Dogs instinctively hide their pain very well. Carrying tweezers or small needle-nose pliers is a good precautionary measure. You can also purchase leather booties for dogs. They work well once the dog gets used to wearing them. Just know that dogs sweat through their paw pads so it may hinder their natural cooling mechanism. When you get home, check your dog's pads. Check between the toes and in their fur for foreign objects.
Dogs cannot clearly communicate physical distress so always carefully observe your dog. Know that dogs can dehydrate just like humans. If you suspect your dog is dehydrated try the following. First, test for loss of skin elasticity by pulling up the loose skin over the dog's shoulders, and then release. In a normal dog, the skin should spring back into place immediately. In a dehydrated dog, the skin stays up in a ridge. The second test is for you to take notice of your dog's gums. Press lightly on the dog's gum, and you will notice that the color changes briefly. In a healthy dog, the color will return to their gums almost immediately. When a dog gets dehydrated, it will take much longer for the color to come back to normal after pushing on their gum. Also, watch for sunken eyes as that is also an indication of dehydration. Know that your dog sweats through their mouths and paw pads. Wetting the bottom of your dog's feet will help to cool him/her. Find a bit of shade and relax and slowly hydrate.
Finally, take into consideration the age of your dog, the heat index, length and difficulty of the trail and your dog's ability and stamina. Like people, dogs have different skill and endurance levels. Only do as much as you know your dog can handle. Your canine companion will thank you for it with unconditional love (as if you did not have that already).
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Beth Friedman is owner of Canine Companion Consulting, which conducts in-home dog training. Canine Companion Consulting's mission is to enhance the dog and human relationship by assisting humans to better understand dog culture and behavior, which results in a happy, well trained dog. Reach her at (602) 790-9430, Beth.Ctothe3@yahoo.com or visit www.CanineCompanionConsulting.com.