OK, so you think it would be a good idea to take your dog hiking on Tucson’s trails, so you just take him with you next time. No big deal. Right?
Maybe not a good idea. Here are three big things that you have to consider before you take your dog hiking:
- Suitability (Breed, Temperament, & Obedience)
- Local Conditions (Environment & Laws)
People have a tendency to think that animals are just naturally adapted to exercise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if a dog is regularly active, the rigors of hiking and camping can easily lead to overexertion, overheating, or serious injury. Your dog needs a training program just like you do, and remember that your dog can’t tell you when its thirsty, cramping, or sore. Take it slow and build your dog’s stamina over an extended period of time. Saja will run 30-45 minutes with me, but I started her out on short little 10 minute runs in the cooler weather. As you build their endurance, watch them during and after exercise to learn the signs of tiredness, injury, and so on. You should also take them out on short trail hikes regularly. Climbing mountains is a lot harder than walking the golf course, so again you should build them up slowly.
Trails, especially in rocky areas, are hard on the feet, so you need to give the dog a chance to build up callouses on their pads. You might also consider booties if your dog will wear them. Keep their nails trimmed. On the trail, check their feet periodically for cuts, scrapes, and thorns.
Overheating and dehydration are major concerns for people and dogs alike in Arizona. If you haven’t hiked for six months don’t take your dog out for a ten miler on a blistering July day in Arizona! Both of you will suffer, but we have a much more effective heat dispersal system than the dog. If your dog is collapsing in every shade source you come to then it is time for a nice long water break.
Not every breed is designed for the mountains. Short legged and flat face dogs do not fair well with extended exercise. Working dogs and “primitive” breeds are recommended for wilderness companions, but always consider what activities and climate the breed was bred for when choosing a dog. A husky can be trained to run all day, but is probably a poor choice for desert hiking. Likewise, overprotective breeds may be a hazard to other hikers.
Which leads us to temperament. If your dog is poorly behaved at home, it is not going to be better on the trail. The trail offers a million distractions, smells, sights, and sounds to tempt your dog. I had a dog growing up that would run and hide in terror every time there was a thunderstorm. Every semblance of reason fled her little brain and no amount of calling or bribing helped. I can imagine her disappearing from a mountain camp in shear terror, never to be seen again. Mix in a bunch of strangers (and their dogs) who are sharing the trail and things will only get worse. The same goes with obedience. If your dog will not listen to you at home, it will not listen to you on the trail.
A trail dog should be friendly, obedient, and relatively calm. The secret is to start at a young age by introducing them to new people, dogs, and situations. Give them solid obedience training and slowly introduce them to the hiking environment.
Local conditions may significantly limit where your dog can or should go. The desert heat is a constant factor during Tucson hikes, but so is the terrain, wildlife, and laws. Our hiking tends to involve a lot of boulder scrambling. Saja loves it, and one of my friends called her a “hard core dog” after watching her scamper up pile after pile of rocks. Not all dogs have the balance for that and some are afraid of heights. On the other hand, Saja’s short stature and dislike of water higher than her belly would make her unsuitable for swampy terrain.
I do worry about wildlife especially for remote overnight trips. I personally think rattlesnake training and vaccines are a good idea in Arizona. I also keep her close by or tied up in camp so that some bear, mountain lion, or coyote doesn’t try to make a meal out of her.
Finally, you should check out the laws and regulations of your hiking area. Dogs are forbidden in Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, and the Pusch Wilderness. Some areas have leash restrictions, but others may not. Technically, Pima County’s leash law applies anytime your dog is outside your enclosed backyard, so make sure you investigate your local laws.
Well, I hope this helps. Dogs can make wonderful back woods companions, but the decision to take them with you should not be taken lightly. Remember that you are morally responsible for your dog’s well being and legally responsible for your dog’s actions. With a little preparation, planning, and training, you and your dog can enjoy many years of hiking and camping. I’ll see you on the trail.
© 2009, The Desert Dog Journal. All rights reserved.
About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!