Backpacking With A Dog

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So you’ve decided to bring ‘Ol Yeller along with you on your next weekend adventure…Great! Having a dog on the trail can be a rewarding bonding experience for both the owner and canine. Dogs on trail provide so much entertainment, comic relief, and open doors for so many social encounters with fellow hikers.  If negligent in pre-trip planning however, dogs can be a nuisance, affect your relationship with others, and can ruin the whole experience. Now before you and Fido pack the car and head off, here are a few things to consider prior to your departure:

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Are dogs even allowed here?

Be sure to go online or call ahead and learn the park’s dog policy. Most places require dogs to be leashed at all times and never left un-attended. Some may require you to purchase a pet pass or show documentation of a rabies vaccine, and then there are places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that don’t allow dogs altogether. Now of course working therapy dogs are excluded from these bans but those animals are considered medical ‘tools’ for those who have a legitimate need for them. It’s not exactly ethical to lie about having a dog for medical purposes just to bring him with you and you could be looking at some nasty consequences in trying to cheat the system. If a park doesn’t allow dogs, do yourself and Fluffy a favor and pick another location for your adventure.

Is my dog realistically fit to do this trip? Consider age, shape, etc

Consider several factors here. Can that two month old puppy’s bones support the 20 mile weekend you’ve planned? Or maybe your dog is getting up there in her years, can she make those steep hills with her fragile state?  You may not want to admit that your dog just isn’t ready when you are, or that your long time adventure buddy is reaching retirement status, but do what’s best for your dog. 

What about physical fitness level? Just like people, dogs can be lazy, overweight, crazy active, or somewhere in the middle. Even if Cujo can stand (or sit) to lose a few pounds, don’t risk injury and force your morbidly obese mutt to shed all that weight over the course of a week.  This is supposed to be fun after all, not a canine version of The Biggest Loser.  If you’re looking to add some calories to your dog’s backpacking meals, pour a little olive oil over his dry food or mix his regular food with high performance dog chow (but definitely don’t switch all food as this can cause an upset stomach).

What about your dogs health? If he’s built with short stubby legs, three miles may seem like twenty as he scrapes low rocks and branches while moving those little legs twice as fast as you. Scout, being a beagle, has epilepsy and when very stressed out he goes into seizures. If your dog has a medical condition or old injury, consult your veterinarian before attempting a backpacking trip.

Is my dog trained well enough? Will he chase wildlife, jump at hikers, or run off?

Even if your location doesn’t have leash laws, always keep one at the ready. Or, play it safe and keep even the most well behaved dog leashed at all times. I admit, on occasion Scout is allowed to run free but only if he is the only dog and if we are in areas where hikers are scarce. Even so, a strange scent or scurrying animal can send your dog into the ‘GO GEDDIT’ mode. Make sure you’ve got Scooby 100% under control at all times, ESPECIALLY if you lose the leash.

When you do cross paths with other hikers, will your dog sit politely until invited over or will he lunge playfully and smear muddy paw prints all over his new best friend?  No one appreciates dogs that lunge at wildlife or cause a hectic barking scene with each passing hiker.

If staying overnight in a shelter, will your dog beg and whine for attention or steal food from those around you? What about when you meet a hiker who is afraid of dogs? Even a happy-dog smile can be interpreted as a bared-tooth snarl by some dog-wary people. Try to be mindful of hikers who signed up for a peaceful getaway in the woods, free from the frustrations of other people’s pets.

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Am I prepared to clean up after him along the way?

Lets face it, even prissy dogs can be messy. For one, dogs don’t give a whole lot of warning when they’ve got to go, meaning you may not have the time to get them far enough away from the trail. In accordance with the Leave No Trace guidelines, are you willing to dig cat holes for Snoopy’s poo too? If your dog doesn’t finish his food and leaves bits lying around, will you risk attracting other hungry animals at night? If he gets into the fire pit or trash bags (or heaven forbid, food bags) at shelters, can you sacrifice the hours of daylight better spent covering miles to pick up food while apologizing to fellow hikers? If not, maybe you should consider leaving your pooch at the kennel or a friends house for the weekend.

Can I handle the extra time and effort to make it with a dog?

What about at the end of a long wet day when its time to hit the hay and you strip off your soaking clothes and slide into your sleeping bag with your warm, dry sleeping layers. Then comes in Lassie with her 4 inches of matted, muddy, wet dog hair wanting some refuge from the rain as well. Letting her inside means keeping her safe and comfortable but would sacrifice your own comfort. Can you handle that? What about carrying and filtering extra water? You brought her here so you need to be prepared to put your dog’s needs first.

Now that being said, hiking with Scout has made every adventure ten times better than they could ever have been without him. His playful personality mixed with his beagle charm usually means every thru hiker, scouting troop, elderly couple, and little kid wants to kiss and hug him and feed him the snacks they were saving for later.  Since Scout became active, his seizures have all but disappeared and he’s overall a much happier dog. While he definitely requires special care on the trail, it’s a life that suits both of us equally and makes every experience an adventure we’ll never forget.

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