Dogs can be wonderful trail blazers, but some precautions are necessary

Hiking with canine companions

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

Imagine being in your tent on a mountain ridge after a long day of hiking. Curled beside you is your best friend. As he begins to nod off, you can hear quivering half-snores and feel his paws begin to twitch against you as he descends into deep sleep.

This scenario is familiar to the multitude of people who enjoy hiking and camping with their canine companions. To those who have never tried it, hiking with your dog can be a very enjoyable experience.

"I've had four purebred German shepherds over the years, and they all loved to walk and hike," said Jerry Garoutte of Kenai.

The main reason he likes hiking with his dog is they enjoy each other's constant company.

"We're inseparable," he said. "Now that my kids are all grown and have kids of their own, my dogs are my kids."

Garoutte and his dog Klondike, an all-white German shepherd, have hiked virtually all the trails on the Kenai Peninsula over the years -- Lost Lake, Summit Creek, Resurrection Pass and all its branches, Devil's Pass Lake, Mystery Hills, Skyline and all those on the way to Seward.

"Every time I start putting my shoes on, he's up in my face, vocalizing and carrying on, and pawing at me to hurry up," he said.

Dogs are energetic companions and Garoutte said he's put in some long days while hiking with his pal.

"We've done 22 to 24 miles through the mountains," he said. "There's a tremendous difference between those kinds of miles and walking along a flat path.

Garoutte said after hikes that long the dog would be bushed, but come time for the next hike and it would be as excited to go as ever.

Of course, just like with humans, this level of fitness and endurance must be worked up to. If your dog spends most of its time flopped on the couch, you can't expect it to hike a lot of miles right off the bat. Attempting too much too soon will likely result in injury for your pet.

Start slow with regular walks around the neighborhood to get in shape and gradually increase the distance of these walks. Then transition to hiking trails that are easy and work progressively up to more difficult terrain or longer hikes.

Also, just like with humans, dogs require the proper nutrition while hiking and camping. Feed them after the hike, rather than right before, to prevent sickness from the exercise. It's always good to bring a few treats to share during rest breaks.

"I always bring a few milk bones and other mun-chies for him," said Garoutte.

Bring plenty of water and a bowl for your dog. Frequent water breaks will maintain your dog's energy level and prevent dehydration.

This may sound like a lot to carry, but there are numerous products on the market designed to make things easier. There are several styles of lightweight and compact, collapsible food and water bowls.

There are also high quality packs and saddle bags made specially for dogs, so they can carry their own supplies. However, the amount of weight a dog can carry will vary depending on the breed and the dog's individual level of health and fitness.

Check with your veterinarian first, to ensure your dog's musculature and skeletal system can support carrying extra weight, and if so how much. Never have your dog carry your gear.

It's a good idea to bring along a first aid kit, for both you and your dog. Most hiking injuries occur on the pads of a dog's paw. Cuts and scrapes are common, and a thorn or splinter isn't unheard of either.

Keep in mind when hiking with your pet, that not everyone loves dogs. Be considerate of other hikers and keep your dog under control at all times. There are several leashes, collars and harnesses available for hiking with pets.

Leashes are an especially good idea for small dogs that could be snatched away by eagles if allowed to run free.

Be mindful of sensitive areas, like alpine zones. Make sure your dog sticks to the beaten trail in these areas just like you should. Never let your pet chase wildlife. Also, make certain your pet is up to date on all vaccines, to ensure it can't transmit anything harmful to native wildlife.

The typical "leave no trace" ethic for human waste goes for dogs too. Always bury your pet's waste as you would your own. Don't allow your dog to stand or urinate in springs or other sources of drinking water.

Always have some form of up-to-date identification on your dog when hiking. Tags or a microchip can be crucial in reuniting you with your pet should the two of you get separated on a hike.

As winter begins to lose its bite, think about getting out with your furry friend. A day of hiking under the azure skies of spring and summer can be a powerful elixir to both humans and dogs.

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