Is Your Dog a Trail Dog?

As the trail finally leveled off at the valley bottom, Kane trotted further in front of me, his swaying gait interrupted by ever more frequent investigations of sounds and smells. Finally, with his inner-wolf awakened – and unaware of the incongruity of being wolfish while wearing a bright red doggy pack – Kane dove into a patch of rhododendrons after some wily rodent.

The forest had definitely changed. After three days of hiking along the 40-mile ridge of Iron Mountain, just south of Damascus, VA, we had finally descended back down into cove forest. Ah, those towering hemlocks and poplars and the carpet of Indian cucumber root, club mosses, and mushrooms of a thousand shapes and colors. The dappled light of late afternoon sun was filtering through the dense canopy down onto that multi-hued forest floor.

But if I was impressed by this change from the monotonous ridge-top forest, Kane had been transported to another world altogether. I could get only the barest inkling of the myriad scents in which he was engrossed – exciting and familiar, mysterious and dangerous – each with its unique significance as processed through that wolf-like brain. For me, experiencing the cove forest through my nasal passages was like listening to an orchestra of unfamiliar instruments while wearing earplugs.

For Kane, better even than the smells was when we came across our first real stream in days; not one of those meager trickles of spring water found every few miles up on the ridge tops, but a torrent of clean, cold water that a dog could really get his belly into. I envied the ease and innocence with which Kane could plunge into that water.

It was during this trek down into the cove forest, day three of a two-week backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, when I began to really understand the advantages of backpacking with a dog. Dogs, unlike us two-legged types, are always down there where the action is. But hiking with Kane offered more than just vicarious appreciation of the forest through his canine senses; it opened a different perspective on the forest for me. When hiking with other people, constant chatting is inevitable, and when hiking alone, it’s easy to get absorbed in one’s own head. But when hiking with Kane, my attention was constantly drawn to unfamiliar aspects of the forest – every sound and scent had a new significance. Suddenly, I, too, felt I was down where the action is.

Outfitting your pooch

Jay Schoon, owner of the Trail Hound outfit shop in Asheville, North Carolina, agrees that dog hiking works best for hikers who are interested in, “Getting into the rhythm of their dog and seeing and hearing things differently – from a dog’s perspective.”

“Dogs lived in these woods before Europeans came,” says Schoon.

Schoon, who has been outfitting dogs since 1999 and is now launching a line of “Trail Hound” dog hiking products, sees dogs as full-fledged partners in the hiking experience. “If you’re not seeing your dog as a teammate and are only out hiking for yourself, then your dog is just a distraction and it won’t be a very rewarding experience for you or your dog,” says Schoon.

Schoon sees dog hiking as a bonified sport with its own gear, rules, and outfitters. He has started a dog hiking club in Asheville called the “Leash Masters,” and would like to see dog hiking gain a wider acceptance as an outdoor sport. The motto of the Trail Hound shop is, “Expedition quality gear for the everyday dog,” and indeed, he sees most everyday dogs as well cut out for dog hiking. “Wilderness is everything that our day-to-day world is not for both people and dogs,” says Schoon, “but, as with most sports, hiking ability is more mental than physical, and dogs have an advantage in this respect.”

Outfitting Kane at the Trail Hound had been both simple and inexpensive: I bought a used Granite Gear dog pack from Schoon for less than $30, and, except for a couple of additions to the medical kit and two bags of dog food that went into his pack, that was the extent of his “outfitting.”

The rigors of the trail

As we hiked up the first mountain of our trip, it became clear that carrying a fully-loaded pack would be far less difficult for Kane than I had feared. He hiked along without complaint, if somewhat closer ahead than usual and taking fewer side excursions. It wasn’t until waking up on the third morning, however, after hiking fourteen miles the day before, when it became clear that I wasn’t the only one feeling the strain of the trek. As I limped about the camp for two or three hours trying to muster the fortitude to don my hiking boots and backpack for another day, it became clear that Kane was in no better shape. His strained gait was reminiscent of an elderly German shepherd with hip dysplasia. He was also mastering a new plaintive look that somehow combined pitiful with accusatory. His pains did not seem to be related to carrying a pack, however, but were the product of a lot of non-stop hiking on rough terrain.

By the fifth day, as we traversed across the steep and rocky goat trails of Tennessee’s Pond Mountain Wilderness, Kane adopted a new tactic: he would lie down across the trail about five steps ahead, effectively forcing me to take a break. After several dozen of these episodes, I was aghast. After enduring this dog’s daily pestering to go for walks in the woods ever since I adopted him, I had him whooped in just five days of hiking.

Laura Pearson, a family veterinarian from Lenoir, North Carolina, was less surprised that a dog would have trouble after five days of hiking on rocky terrain – even a big healthy husky like Kane. The pads on Kane’s feet were not accustomed to the sharp rocks of mountain trails, nor were his muscles accustomed to long days of steep hiking. “If you don’t do some conditioning and toughen up their pads,” says Pearson, “then it’s going to be hard on their paws.” Pearson recommends bringing a good bandage and some antibiotic cream on hikes in case your dog’s pads get cut. “It’s difficult to stop the bleeding if their pads are sliced,” says Pearson. Aspirin works well for a dog’s sore muscles, though she cautions against using Tylenol and Ibuprofen and recommends talking to a veterinarian about dosage.

In addition to the obvious need for current ID and rabies tags and a visit to the vet in advance of the hike, Pearson has a number of other recommendations for dog hikers. A vaccine for the stomach parasite, Giardia, may be advisable for younger dogs (less than 4 or 5 years) that may not have developed a resistance yet, and a lyme disease vaccine is advisable if you will be hiking in woods and fields infested with deer ticks. In general, though, a good medical kit will have most of the things you will need for your dog on the trail, including antibiotic cream, Benadryl (for swelling), aspirin, and bandages.

Is your pooch made for packin’?

There is little question that, if you’re a real dog lover, you will enjoy those long backpacking trips even more with a well-outfitted dog. In addition to bringing a new perspective to your hiking experience, dogs can make you feel safer from bears and ne’er-do-wells, and they might even carry more than their own food up particularly steep slopes. In determining whether your pooch is up to the task, both Jay Schoon and Laura Pearson agree that a responsible pet owner is the most important pre-condition for responsible dog hiking. There are only a few breeds that Pearson worries about for long hikes in particular – mostly breeds that are susceptible to breathing and cardiovascular conditions such as bulldogs, Bostons and pugs. Overweight dogs, too, are susceptible to such problems.

My advice to prospective new dog-hikers is to go ahead and get your dog outfitted if you think he or she is up to the rigors, but get the right gear, don’t skip the conditioning phase before you go, and don’t be fooled by your dog’s “I want to go live out in the woods forever” act. Your dog, like Kane (who was sent home after the first week due to exhaustion and some ill behavior), may not be quite the outdoorsman that you think.


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