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A dog can make a great hiking companion

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Out and About

Have Hound, Will Hike

A dog can make a great hiking companion — if you're both prepared.

by Karen Ray



Training a young dog in the niceties of companion hiking sometimes brings the unexpected. Hiking in to a hot spring in the Gila National Forest is one of our favorite springtime trips here in southern New Mexico. The Gila Wilderness contains some of the roughest national forest area in the country and it can be a great place to hike with your dog if you plan and prepare.

dog 1
Austin Ray and Scout near Little Bear Canyon.
(Ray family photos by Ian Ray)

A few years back we decided it was an opportune time to begin acquainting our young dog with the joys of the trail. Scout is a Husky-mix pound rescue who resembles a large, well-fed coyote. At the time of this outing he was not quite a year old, still in the throes of gangly canine adolescence. This six-mile hike was a great fit for our condition and skill level.

But the last section contains 14 river crossings. As rivers go, the Gila is a puny cousin of the Missouri or Mississippi, but not bad for a wild little southwestern waterway. In spring, even in drought, it is always in a varied flood stage due to winter snow melt higher up. This adds some excitement to what in summer are deliciously cold mid-calf water crossings.

We hiked along the dappled trail, watching Scout experience all the new smells of his first trip. He rapidly became more adroit at navigating, learning to give trees and rocks a wider berth to account for the light pack he carried. We had practiced with him at home taking walks and short hikes with the loaded pack. At the river crossings it became evident he was in his element as he dashed into the cold water and wriggled out on the other side, his abundant energy recharged.

At about crossing 10 I picked up a walking stick to steady myself against the strong current as we prepared to work our way across. My 35-pound pack helped anchor me to the riverbed. My husband and hiking buddy carries twice that, but it slows him down a bit so I can keep up. The man was born in the wrong century and could hike these mountains all day.

If either of us slips in a full pack, the high water and strong current will give us an exhilarating tumble down the river. We might even see our lives flash by a few times before we can get out of our packs. Hence, we stay together. Our system works like this: He crosses first and then I go over, so we won't both fall in at the same time. If he does go down, I can shout helpful words of encouragement to him when he comes up gasping for air. This is our form of marital bonding.

Mountain Man headed across first, pack loosened. I watched warily as he braced himself against the mid-thigh current. Scout, like his master, loves this and leaped into the water, swimming out to the middle and angling for the opposite shore as the current swept him downstream. He scrambled out on the other side, grinning happily. He had successfully escorted one human across and loved his job.

I was halfway over, mentally chanting, "Don't look at the water, look at the shore," when I saw the strobe light come on over his furry head and realized he was going to try and help me. Slow motion kicked in as I shouted, "Keep him away from me! He's coming in!" Planting the walking stick more firmly into the riverbed, I checked that my pack belt was unhooked in case I'd have to shed it in a hurry.

Scout bounded across the rocky shore, headed straight for me and convinced I am having as much fun as he was. My mind fast forwarded to the next few seconds when he would crash into me like some wet, smelly asteroid. Calculating which pack straps I could undo before he got to me, I simultaneously braced myself in the vain hope that I could keep my balance.

I was still yelling, "Stop the dog!" when my frantic prayer was heard and at the water's edge, he tripped, face-planted and flipped, cushioned by his doggie pack and effectively stopped in his errand of helpfulness. Chattering with cold, I stumbled across the last few feet of slick rocks and fast current. We got soaked by a great shake from the sodden pup, then pulled ourselves together and moved on down the trail in the brilliant spring sunshine.

I humbly relate this story to underscore the wisdom of using a leash or a harness in at least some of your hiking experiences with your dog — for his safety and yours. My husband could have restrained Scout while I crossed. An over-enthusiastic pup can potentially wreak a lot of havoc in the space of a few seconds.


The first step to enjoying New Mexico's beautiful country while hiking with your dog is to prepare her. Just as athletes condition for an event, so you need to help your pup strengthen her muscles and toughen her footpads. This is a great time for both of you, no matter your ages, to get in shape before you tackle that hike. Know the abilities of both yourself and your pet and remember to leave enough stamina, food and water to get back out from wherever you've hiked in to. Everyone will enjoy the trip much more if you take the time to prepare.

Doug Lacy, owner of the Pet Health Shoppe in Silver City, recommends incremental conditioning to prepare your dog for longer hikes. He says working up to two-hour hikes on steep terrain is a good idea. Both he and his sister, Kat Lacy, owner of Better Life Natural Pet Foods in Las Cruces, recommend the Baylor Canyon and "A" Mountain trails, which allow dogs on a leash. Kat also notes that some of the best local hikes for varied terrain are the DoƱa Ana Mountains, which have some great bike trails, and the Corralitos Ranch west of Las Cruces.

Doug is an avid hiker who has been enjoying the trails with his canine friend, Ludo, for five years. Ludo is a six-year-old Basset Hound. "He absolutely loves it," Doug says. "It's a great experience for sharing time with your dog. He can really grow up on a hike; he will learn to understand his place in the family. They really feel like they have a job to do." He says it is a great time to get to know each other better.

Kat recalls going to Stewart Lake in the Santa Fe National Forest: "It was grueling on us people. Ludo would go to the end of the trail and back. He was a riot; Bassets have that hysterical personality."

Prior to setting out on your hike, contact your local game and fish office or parks service and check on the leash regulations. This will avoid disappointment and a wasted trip if dogs are not allowed. In our southwest region there are many wonderful locations that welcome dogs, but do your research first.

Car sickness can complicate just getting to your hiking spot. Kat, who also writes a regular column for "Dog Cruces" magazine, says the most common cause of travel nausea is that the dog stresses during car rides. While Better Life does carry a product called "Happy Traveler," she also suggests desensitization training: Get your dog used to the car a bit at a time. You can use treats to help the dog learn that good things happen on car rides, not just a trip to the vet.


Out on your hike, Kat advises, "Training treats would be a good idea to keep your dog focused while out hiking." Good training not only works with the physical conditioning of your dog but also teaches him to pay attention to you. Teach him to walk either in front or behind you, not under your feet. A well-trained dog that responds to your commands and is calm and controlled around other dogs and people will be a pleasure to have along.

Katherine Aromaa of www.coopersdogtraining.com writes, "When taking your dog hiking and backpacking off leash, you must have voice control over your dog to keep your dog as well as other people, animals and the environment safe. When you take off that leash, you are taking more risk."

Doug Lacy cautions, "You want to be aware of how your dog will react if presented with a snake. You can use a shed snake skin to train them and get an idea how they will react." If the dog shows no alarm or tries to bite the snake skin, you will need to train her to be wary of snakes and not confront them. He says there are snake training classes available to condition your dog to react properly.

The majority of your hikes may require just a leash and some water, but it's a good idea to be prepared with a bag of easy-to-grab gear. You might include: leash, dog pack, portable water bowl or plastic baggies, paw protectors, snacks, first aid kit, collar and ID tags. My favorite "must try" idea is the hands-free leash with pockets by Outward Hound. This allows you to keep your hands free while still keeping your dog under control. Many pet-supply stores carry travel kits containing several basic items. It's easy to customize these with a few things essential to the type of hiking you and your pet do.

Dog packs vary in price and quality, from an entry-level pack for about $35 up to $180 for a sturdy camel pack with a water bladder. Ruffwear makes some packs that are convertible so you can use them as a harness for other hiking situations. Look for one with reflective trim to help keep your dog safe and in sight in low-light situations. Other packs have a pocket for a removable cold pack, which could greatly increase comfort on a hot day. Take your dog with you if possible to get the correct fit for his pack, or take good measurements if ordering online. The Colorado-based company Mountainsmith is "dedicated to the K-9 adventure experience" and has thorough online fitting guidelines.

Practice walks will get your dog used to the space around him; he presents a wider profile with the pack and will initially run into things. On the REI website, author Erica May writes in "Hiking or Backpacking with Your Dog" that you should "ease your dog into the routine of hiking. If you want your pet to carry some of the load, start off by having him or her wear a pack around the house, then on short walks, then longer walks."

Kat Lacy emphasizes proper gear: "If you take them on long hikes and don't prepare, you're going to get bloody paws." Paw protectors can be indispensible in rough country and extreme temperatures. But getting your dog used to wearing boots for the first time is like watching a Laurel and Hardy routine. Do both of you a favor and don't slip them on the dog for the first time right at the start of your hike. Let your dog get used to them. Kat encourages people to "bring their pets in to fit them. All employees in the store are trained with the products and can help with fitting."


Remember that classic band, Three Dog Night? According to www.idiomsite.com, this expression refers to being cold: "Often when ranchers or cowboys were out on the range they would have to sleep with their dogs to keep warm. A one dog night was a night when he had to share body heat with one dog, a two dog night was two dogs and a three dog night was an extremely cold night where he would have to share body heat with three dogs." If you're staying overnight and it's going to be that cold, bring along extra gear for you and your pal to snuggle up with, including a ground cloth. Kat also recommends a waterproof fleece jacket that she says is "especially good for short-haired dog breeds that don't develop much of a winter coat."

hike 2
Brenna Lacy hiking with Ludo.
(Ludo photos courtesy Doug Lacy)

Be mindful that wet fur and cold nights are not a good combination. Give your dog a chance to dry thoroughly before the temperatures drop. Often a lightweight sleeping bag liner and a ground cover over a good bed of pine needles will be just right on a cool mountain night. Another unique piece of gear for longer trips is a "twist and go" pop-up tent. This provides quick instant shelter and can be a big help in keeping your dog warm and dry while keeping your own camping gear clean and dog-odor free.

Hiking in the cooler part of the day during the warmer seasons and reversing that during our short winter is often a great strategy. "Prepare for the highly variable weather conditions here in the southwest," Kat encourages. We've all read stories of folks caught out in the elements, ill prepared for what they will face. Don't let that happen to you and your pet.

For hot weather, a great accessory is the "Chiller Coat," a silver vest that has a water-absorbent layer to keep your dog cool. It lasts two to four hours and can be a big help for those hot summer days when it's easy to overheat. It also has reflective trim to improve visibility.


Brush up on your first-aid skills before heading out for a hike. Besides your own first-aid supplies you can add some items that will address your dog's unique needs. Kat says, "You need bandages that are self-adhesive, so you can wrap it over a dressing and it will hold." Also pack a sturdy pair of tweezers and perhaps some "AspirEase" for pain management. Applying a bug deterrent, especially to neck, ears and belly, will protect against fleas and ticks and help prevent Lyme disease. She recommends giving glucosamine as a preventive joint lubricator, for dogs of all ages. (I'm using that myself these days.)

A common canine injury Kat sees a lot of is torn nails. She says, "Rough ground can rip that nail off, or leave it hanging.... A lot of people think the nails will wear down with hiking, but your dog would have to hike 20-25 miles of rough terrain to keep them trimmed. Most of our pets don't come anywhere near that." As you're prepping for your hike, make sure your dog's nails are trimmed.

An additional item to consider loading in your travel kit is skunk odor remover spray. This can be a great aid in taking care of the results of a close encounter with an unwelcome hiking companion. Imagine being out on a hike, your dog getting sprayed, then having to get him home without having to burn your car afterwards because of the smell.

But the most important thing to prepare for with day hikes, Doug says, is to make sure you take enough water. "It's always good to carry at least one to two quarts of water for an afternoon hike, depending on the size and water needs of your dog." Kat agree: "Just like with people, hydrate prior to your hike."

A great portable water dish for shorter hikes is just a plastic sandwich bag, stuffed into a pocket. We've used this many times with great success; it weighs virtually nothing and is easy to drink out of. Doug carries a collapsible bowl that folds up small and can fit in a pocket. He has tried many and says, "I've found the best one is the latex rubber water bowls by Ruff Dawg; they're sanitary and have long-term durability."

You can have your dog carry her own food and water. Double bagging the food in zipper-sealed bags will keep it dry and contain any odors. Consider swapping out for stuff that can't be damaged by weather or rough use. Make sure to balance the weight in the pack and watch out for anything that might rub and irritate her.


Helping dogs with good nutrition is Doug's primary focus in preparing people to hike with their dogs. It's important to "prepare for a hike by carrying food you know your pet will like. There are several lightweight options out there that are high nutrition. On backpack trips, air-dried raw meat works out better for me and my friends." At the Pet Health Shoppe he has lamb and venison options available to provide maximum nutrition for the lightest weight impact.

Some dogs "go off their food" during longer hikes. But don't worry if your dog doesn't eat as much as at home. Her routine is different and the surroundings may be so interesting that she just isn't as hungry. You can help offset this by feeding her out of the same dish you will use while hiking for a few days before going. Usually, dogs will eat snacks, so make sure those are nutritious and high protein; banana chips, jerky, even a peanut butter sandwich can really help with your pet's stamina. (Avoid actual nuts, though, as these may give your dog tummy problems and pancreatitis; some sources say macadamias cause neurological problems. Grapes and raisins are a big no-no, too, as of course is anything containing chocolate.)

When camping, feed your dog somewhat away from camp, in the same place each day if you're stationary, or in a dedicated food station you show her each day. Make sure to put the dish away so as not to attract wild animals.

At the end of your hike, take a few minutes to debrief before climbing in the car. Offer your dog fresh water and let him cool down in the shade if it's been hot. Offer water again a few minutes later. You could give him a light snack but don't feed him heavily before the car ride home. Check his body for ticks, lacerations, thorns, rub spots and sores, paying special attention to his feet and legs. If you've been in a place with poison ivy, you will want to bathe your dog to remove the essential plant oils that could give you a rash even days later.

Check your dog again after you arrive home and note if he's been worrying over any sore spots. Give his coat a good brushing and feed and water him well again in familiar surroundings. Wash out any portable dog bowls you've used and check his pack, boots and leash for signs of wear. When your gear is in good shape and put away, curl up with your canine pal and enjoy the memories of the hike. How did you both do?

Now is a great time to start planning your next outing with your dog. With a bit of coaching and some positive experiences, she can become a great hiking companion. Make it a pleasant experience by building stamina and being prepared and you'll both be dancing at the door ready to go on another trip. See you on the trail!



Pooch Packs

When selecting a dog pack, consider:

  • Pack size
  • Size of compartments suited to size of dog
  • Intended length of trips and type of hiking

Pack fitting:

  • Measure the dog's girth at chest level
  • Measure the length of the dog
  • Weigh your dog
  • Adjust straps, making sure they don't bind/rub/pinch

Pack loading:

  • No more than 25% of the dog's weight, often less
  • Balance the load on each side so it rides level
  • Pack items in zip-top bags to waterproof
  • Make sure no hard edges will rub against the dog on the inside of the pack



Karen Ray is a Las Cruces based writer and personal historian. She can be reached at karen@rememberingthetime.net.



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