Hiking with Dogs 101: Choosing a Hiking Dog
I see a lot of “articles” floating around the web with titles like: Top 10 Breeds of Hiking Dogs, or Which Dog Breed Makes the Best Hiking Dog?
These headlines always make me scratch my head because they are misleading. Simply put, no single dog breed makes the best hiking dog. There is not a single breed in existence where each and every member of that breed is going to be a good hiking partner. Often times, individual members of dog breeds that AREN’T mentioned make amazing adventure buddies. In addition, many of the best hiking dogs are mixed breeds or mutts, not purebred dogs. In this article, rather than telling you which breed of dog to pick, I’m going to tell you what qualities to look for in an individual dog you may be considering as a hiking companion.
I’ll be writing this as though you are meeting a dog that you are trying to decide whether to adopt as a hiking buddy. If you’re considering getting a puppy, use this advice in such a way as to determine what the adult traits of that puppy may be. Generally, observing the temperaments, sizes, coat types, etc. of the parents is a good place to start. If you’re purchasing from a breeder, temperament/Volhard testing may also give you clues.
Size is an important factor to consider when choosing a hiking dog for several reasons. A dog that is too small may have difficulty keeping up with you, won’t be able to carry any of it’s own weight, and may have decreased stamina. A dog that is too large is going to have a shorter hiking lifespan (more prone to heart and joint problems) and will be difficult to carry out of the woods in the event of an injury or illness.
To me, the ideal size of a canine hiking partner is between 25 and 50lb. A dog in this size range is substantial enough to hike and carry some of their own weight, but small enough to be carried in the event of an emergency. This does not mean that a dog outside these size ranges will not be good on the trail. This is just what I consider to be ideal. I state this while being honest about the fact that my primary hiking partner is a 65lb poodle – I’d have difficulty carrying him if I ever needed to. He was not supposed to grow to be that large (both parents under 50lb). I love him anyway and he loves to hike so we make it work.
Dogs of all breeds can have energy levels ranging from couch potato to ultra-runner. In my experience, dogs on the mid-high end of the spectrum fare best for hiking, especially long distances. Low energy dogs can and will hike, and often enjoy it, but they aren’t going to want to hike as far, as fast, or as long as you do. Ultra high energy, high drive dogs can be difficult to manage on trail and in camp – especially if it’s an on-leash only trail. I prefer a hiking dog that can walk with me all day and settle down nicely in camp at night.
Super high-energy dogs can be slowed down by having them carry a pack. I recommend no more than 10% of their body weight, and dogs under 2 years of age should NOT carry weight. Low energy dogs can still enjoy themselves as well! Just make sure to hike your dog’s hike and not push too far, too fast.
This is an important consideration that can change depending on where you do most of your hiking. If you’re in the backcountry of Alaska, a thick-coated dog will thrive. On the Florida Trail, not so much. When taking this factor into consideration, think about the following things:
- Does the coat require daily grooming/brushing to maintain? If the answer is yes, you may want to reconsider. Dogs with super long, shaggy coats are going to get dirtier, their hair will trap more debris, and it will be more difficult to spot ticks or small skin irritations or abrasions that could become infected. Disclaimer: I hike with a standard poodle, as mentioned. He is kept shaved short about once a month, since he’s a hiking dog. That maintenance is a sacrifice I’m personally willing to make in order to have a dog that doesn’t shed. Determine what you are comfortable with.
- Will the coat help or inhibit my dog’s ability to maintain a proper body temperature? If you live and hike in a cooler climate, a dog with a heavier coat will have an easier time staying warm. A slick-coated dog (think Weimaraner or Greyhound) may need extra care such as layering coats to keep warm in cold climates. If you live in a hot climate, a double-coated Malamute may have a hard time keeping cool.
- Will I be able to easily do nightly tick and injury checks? A slick dog will take less time to body-check and offer fewer hiding places for critters. A hairy dog has more protection against nicks and cuts and is less likely to accumulate skin injuries.
There is no single correct coat type for a hiking dog. I like that I can shave my poodle down short in summer months to help him keep cool, and grow it a bit longer in the winter to help him stay warm. Determine your specific needs and pick a dog that fits the bill.
The perfect hiking dog is amiable, calm, and friendly (but not obnoxiously so) toward people and other dogs. While some level of fear and even mild aggression can be overcome with diligent training, if you’re looking for the perfect hiking partner, why not set yourself up for success by picking a dog that doesn’t come with a host of behavioral issues you’ll have to fix first?
A dog that is excessively fearful or anxious is probably not going to have a good time on trail. Any dog with serious aggression issues is a liability on trail (especially off-leash). When dealing with these issues, my advice is to work with a professional skilled in behavior modification to determine if this dog will ever be suitable for hiking.
Trainability is not a measure of how smart a dog is. Rather, it addresses a dog’s ability to learn new things and willingness to work with their human partner. A dog that is highly trainable is going to be a better hiking partner. A dog that is reluctant to work for or with you and is slow to learn is going to make your life more difficult. Dogs need to know a variety of commands and behaviors in order to be good hiking companions:
- Come when called <—— most important
- Settle/lie down and stay
- Heel/Polite leash walking
- Proper greeting behavior (no jumping or mouthing)
- Leave it
- Quiet (or no barking)
There are many other useful behaviors, but these are the basics. If you’re adopting a shelter dog, spend some time with some treats seeing if you can teach basic obedience commands quickly and easily. If you’re meeting a new puppy, focus on the puppy’s attentiveness to you, desire for food or other reward, and willingness to follow you around. A dog with good potential will be food motivated and pay a lot of attention to you (looking at your face, focused on your voice). Avoid a dog that doesn’t seem motivated by praise or food – this dog is going to be much more difficult to train.
Many people will say to avoid breeds based on characteristics such as: don’t get a hound dog because they have to follow their nose, or don’t get a northern breed because they are independent. Traits such as this can be inherent in certain breeds. However, these traits can also be overcome with proper training. The time to avoid a dog with an undesirable behavioral breed trait is if they are ALSO unresponsive to training and unmotivated to work with you.
I guess we have to address breed in here somewhere. The only thing I’m going to say about picking based on breed is this: the only breed trait that really matters is health.
Most brachycephalic (smooshed snout) breeds will have some difficulty breathing and/or maintaining proper body temperature while participating in prolonged, strenuous physical activity. Breeds such as English Bulldogs, Pugs, Mastiffs, Pekingese, etc. may not be particularly well-suited as hiking dogs.
Many giant breeds such as Great Danes are prone to hip, joint, and other musculoskeletal issues. These may shorten their hiking lifespan or render them unable to hike altogether. These breeds are also more prone to heart problems, so just be careful and make sure you are having regular checkups if you end up choosing one of these dog breeds.
Do not take this as a be-all, end-all. I have seen members of each of these breeds out on trail. You just have to pick the right dog and always be aware of your pet’s personal limitations. For details about potential genetic health issues by breed of dog, THIS guide is very detailed.
Final Thoughts on Choosing a Hiking Dog
The best hiking partner is usually the one you have. If you have a dog in your life that you love, or meet a dog at a shelter that you absolutely cannot walk away from, you can probably manage to turn that dog into a hiking hiking dog. A little training goes a long way. Behavioral issues can be resolved through working with a professional. Your Australian Cattle Dog can learn a bombproof recall if you work hard enough on it. Your Chihuahua who thinks he’s the world’s greatest guard dog can learn to quiet on command with enough practice.
Above anything else when hiking with dogs: be courteous to other hikers and be mindful of your dog. Keep it on leash if you haven’t established a solid recall. Don’t allow it to greet other dogs and hikers if you haven’t perfected greeting behavior. Avoid camping in high-traffic areas if your dog is an alert barker. You get the picture. Get out there and hike with your pooch and have fun!
This is the first in a series I’ll be doing about hiking with dogs. Stay tuned for more!
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