I’ve been meaning to write this article for a few years, as I often see folks out with some version of Fido, enjoying local trails, which makes me smile—and sometimes cringe a wee bit inside.
Spending time on forest and mountain paths with your best four-legged friend provides a level of satisfaction and happiness that’s hard to beat. Depending on various factors however, we need to be aware of the difference in speed and endurance that our canine friends are able to sustain vs. our own on foot, bicycle, horseback etc.
My favorite trail partners have always been my dogs, and in 40+ years of canine ownership, I’ve learned a few things that tend to influence their health and longevity. Dogs are more than willing to head out anywhere, anytime; they don’t complain about the weather; aren’t upset by trail-exploration dead ends and random changes in route finding; allow me to set the pace and distance; and motivate me to experience singletrack on a daily basis.
In the process, they spend more time on-trail with me than any human would ever wish (which might be a reflection on my quirky personality). Canine outings on recreational trails offer both human and animal a great way to keep in shape; however, there are a few realities that you must consider.
Our pet’s ancestors, wild canines, don’t break into prolonged high-speed runs as herd animals might. Even during a hunt, wolves, coyotes and foxes act only as master sprinters, shifting back to loping, stopping, sniffing, loping some more and resting between chases. We need to be cognizant of this trait when we enjoy endurance outings with our pets.
Don’t assume that your dog is a natural-born runner. Consider your dog’s health, build and breed. Older pups can develop joint problems if you train them hard at too young of an age. It’s best to wait until a young dog’s growth plates (areas of cartilage near the ends of bones) have started to close, and that time frame varies by breed and size of dog.
A safe bet is to keep everything to a limited-duration walk/hike pace for the first 18 months, allowing your dog to build strong, durable tendons and joint interfaces. Despite the fact that you’ll be keen to hit the trails with your new dog, the first year and a half of physical development will partially dictate how sturdy the dog will be for the following fourteen or fifteen years.
Dogs with short legs may not be able to keep up with the pace you’d like to maintain, while larger breeds are prone to an abnormal formation of the hip socket that can lead to arthritis, known as hip dysplasia. Snort-nosed, flat-faced breeds (brachycephalic) may find running to require too much exertion, as these breeds have narrowed nostrils and partially obstructed airways, which makes breathing difficult at the best of times.
Dogs can overheat more easily than humans. Their fur, lack of rapid heat loss mechanisms (having only panting and sweat pads in their paws to cool themselves) and determination to keep pace with you are all contributing factors.
When in doubt, exercise during non-peak heat hours: early in the morning or late in the evening. If you notice your dog is showing early signs of heat stroke, stop and take a break and some water. Signs of heat stroke include vomiting, lethargy, excessive panting, dark red or dark pink gums, collapse, elevated heart rate and diarrhea. Treatment includes rapid body cooling, which any body of water and shade will provide.
Rough terrain and over-exertion may cause your dog to experience pad-abrasion or cuts. Prevent this by paying attention to speed over rough surfaces and duration of travel over same. While the canine pad has slightly diminished sensation, damage is painful and potentially infective to your pet.
There are risks to your dog’s paw pads that are unique to colder weather. Frostbite generally occurs at freezing or subfreezing temperatures and can affect not only the paws but also the tail, ears, and genitals of dogs. De-icers, picked up from sidewalks and streets, adhere to paws and can cause burning and cracking, and can be toxic to dogs that lick their paws.
Check out the many quality dog boots on the market. Gone are the days of clunky pods; these products have been replaced by form-fitting, waterproof booties. The quality and fit of canine winter vests and jackets has also improved. If your dog won’t tolerate boots, apply a light coat of beeswax to their pads before heading out (never use petroleum based wax!).
Soreness / Older Dogs
If you have a dog with osteoarthritis or orthopedic problems, mellow exercise is a great way of keeping it in shape, and slimmer dogs generally live longer and have less osteoarthritis. Once a pet has developed osteoarthritis however, running can be painful, so keep it mellow. Consider swimming with Fido, as low-impact sports are great for you and your pet. Investigate glucosamine supplements or consult a veterinarian on prescription veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.
A sedentary person shouldn’t launch into an intensive exercise regime, and neither should your sedentary canine. Too much intensity, too soon, can increase your dog’s risk of injury, as it would a human’s. Combine intervals of walking and jogging, allowing plenty of time for active recovery and catching your breath.
Enjoying unsurfaced trail-based activities with your canine companion is easier on their joints and paws than running on asphalt. Plus, both you and your dog will enjoy the natural sights, forest terpenes and sounds. Check trailhead signage to be sure that dogs are allowed, and before you let your dog off-leash, be cognizant of what types of wildlife roam the park.In cities, be aware that blacktop, asphalt or sand can burn a dog’s paws. Place your hand or a bare foot on the surface that you intend to run it upon. If it’s too hot for your bare skin after 10 seconds, then it’s too hot for your dog as well.
You will thank yourself for teaching your pooch the basic commands of “stop,” “stay” and “leave it.” Once an untrained dog begins to run after an animal, it can easily be gone for many hours. Worse, it can chase an animal until it injures itself, the animal it’s chasing, or be injured by same. Seemingly “gentle” deer can easily main or kill a dog.
Spending trail time with your dog may find you with the odd wood tick. I’m personally not a fan of using chemicals to protect my dog from ticks, preferring to practice thorough dog-checks by hand. The trouble with tick repellants is that you and your family will inevitably pet or hug your dog, and thus, potentially transfer skin or collar-based insecticides to yourselves.
Practicing manual dog-checks has the added benefit of familiarizing yourself with your dog’s skin, joints and pads, placing you in a position of spotting bumps/lesions/cuts etc. in advance of potential infections.
Teaching your dog to drink from your backpack water hose—with a healthy air gap—is easily taught and convenient. Offer your dog a drink every 10–15 minutes, but don’t let it drink more than 5–6 seconds per stop.
A Poop Plan
As a dog owner, you know better than to leave poop behind. You should also know where you’re going to dispose of it along the route, even if that means holding onto it until you find a trash can.
Take care of your dog and you’ll always have a willing singletrack partner who is as keen for adventure as you are. Your explorations will burn extra pounds from both of you, extend your lives and help you stay healthy and happy throughout.
If you haven’t read my previous Cloudburst article on brushing your dog’s teeth (in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue), please do so; it’s mighty important!