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Hiking with dogs: Prepare for the trail

Meredith Heick enjoys the blooming beargrass during a June hike with her dog, Scout, on Mount Spokane State Park trails, where dogs are required to be on leash. (Rich Landers)
Meredith Heick enjoys the blooming beargrass during a June hike with her dog, Scout, on Mount Spokane State Park trails, where dogs are required to be on leash. (Rich Landers)

Exploring the trails on public lands is made more enjoyable when your faithful companion, your dog, is along for the journey.

Before heading out over mountains and across streams, it’s important to know the rules, expectations, limitations and safety precautions necessary for a fun experience.

Check the regulations before taking a dog, since rules can vary widely from parks to wilderness areas. Spokane County has leash laws, as do wildlife refuges.

National parks don’t allow dogs on trails, but many park-service managed national recreation areas, such as Lake Roosevelt, allow dogs.

Many wilderness areas limit group sizes to, say, 10 heartbeats, which could be any combination of humans, horses, dogs or other animals.

Most areas require leashes, but even with a leash, your dog should be familiar with other people or dogs. Jerry Ingram, previous owner of the Ruff House in Klamath Falls, said the first step is good training, especially if leashes aren’t required.

Whether it’s a run-in with another family, a mountain biker or a mountain lion, your dog needs to return when called. A good call-back is essential so your pet doesn’t get lost when off a leash.

If your pooch is easily distracted or doesn’t listen perfectly, it’s recommended to keep him on a leash at all times. When taking your dog on its first few hikes, you may want to consider lesser-known trails or going during the offseason to avoid other people.

Knowing your dog’s limits is important to keep him from reaching dangerous levels of exhaustion. An older or less fit dog might be better off in the local park for a short walk instead of climbing mountains.

If your dog is ready for the long haul, you might consider letting them carry a few things. But remember, they aren’t pack mules. As Ingram notes, “Dogs aren’t really designed to carry a lot of weight.”

To get your four-legged friend comfortable with a pack, break it in on shorter walks around town. When they’re comfortable with the pack for long periods of time, start adding weight.

Pack it light at first, but you should never exceed about a third of the dog’s weight. Depending on the size of your companion, this means he could carry his food and water and maybe a little extra.

If you’re backpacking, overnight sleeping arrangements and rain scenarios need to be taken into account as well.

Some dogs are small enough to fit into your sleeping bag, but others might not be. Dogs also don’t have the option to take off wet clothes for the night, so finding a way to dry your dog in the rain can make a difference when temperatures drop.

On the flip side, when hiking on a scorching summer day, it’s easy for a dog to overheat. Cooling vests are on the market. Soak them in water and the dog wears it like a life jacket to keep cool.

Keeping your dog hydrated is the No. 1 overlooked aspect of hiking, experts agree.

Dogs dehydrate faster than humans. Because they don’t sweat, overheating can compound their exhaustion. Keeping more than enough water for yourself and your dog is the first thing you should plan for before heading out the door.

If you come across rivers or lakes during summer or fall, be wary of when and where your dog finds a drink. Bacteria and algae can make your pooch sick. Lowland lakes are particularly susceptible to blue-green algae. The safest course is to pack fresh water.

Keep an eye on their paws as well. In the winter, boots are great to keep their paws off the snow. Paw creams can help protect and heal. Musher’s Secret – a wax – helps on sharp rocks and cold snow.

Booties can be used to help prevent raw pads.

Tick treatments before hiking are good ideas, especially in spring and summer.

While rare, encounters with wildlife can happen and should be taken seriously. Rattlesnake vaccines may be available from veterinarians and could be the difference between life and death if your dog gets bitten. The vaccine slows the venom’s effect and provides more time to get your dog to the vet.

Along with a basic first-aid kit, it’s a good idea to keep a vet wrap and disinfectant handy.

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