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How to Raise a Trail Pup

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My puppy was perfect from day one. 

Newly adopted, she never once soiled the floors inside. She didn’t bark, and always respected children, adults, and all other animals. It was as though she spoke English—I explained the rules, and she followed them. So, obviously, when I took on the adventures of hiking with her, I never expected there to be any issues at all. My perfectly obedient young rescue would continue to be perfectly obedient on the trails, right? And then she experienced running water for the first time…ErinAnna2Handsup

Erin, right, and Anna, left, worked for years to get this level of communication on the trail. All images: Erin Pannazzo

No matter what I did, not matter what training tools I tried, as soon as there was a body of water to swim and splash in, all rules were out the window. And I don’t mean just not listening, I mean full-on crazy eyes, running at top speeds, barreling into dangerous slippery surfaces. 

Quite honestly, it took several years of training and forming a bond before we made any headway, Even now, she’ll get that crazy look in her eyes, but she respects me enough to listen and I trust her enough to let her go a little crazy.

In these past several years, we’ve been on countless trails, from the Catskill Mountains to the Adirondack High Peaks. I’ve learned so much about safely hiking with your dog. This is important. Torn ligaments, broken bones, scraped paw pads, broken nails—all of this and more can befall your dog on the trail if you're not careful. 

Be careful. Here are the top 10 most important things I’ve learned about hiking with your dog.ErinAnna3love

  1. RECALL, RECALL RECALL! To me, the most important thing you can teach your dog is a reliable recall. That means when you call your dog, they come 100% of the time. This is not only for off-leash hiking, this is a safety measure for you AND your pup. Say you were to trip and drop your leash (I’ve done this a million times), or your pup sees a squirrel dart across the trail, or something spooks her and she runs. If you don’t have a 100% reliable recall, please don’t consider hiking off-leash with your pup. It puts you, your pup, and other hikers in danger. “But he/she’s friendly!” you yell from a distance. The other dog, while leashed and controlled by the owner may not be, and you are then putting your dog in danger, at no fault of the owner or the dog. Please also keep in mind that not everyone who loves to hike loves to be bombarded by dogs on the trail. Some even may be terrified, and an encounter with an off leash dog can ruin a whole experience. Please, just be respectful. There are so many resources online to teach you to train your pup for a reliable recall, and many professional dog trainers to choose from who specialize in these things as well.

  2. Respect Your Dog’s Age. Many people get a brand new puppy and can't wait to get out on trails and start having adventures! The big problem with that is that puppies have growth plates that do not become fully developed until about 18-24 months of age. Which means any long distance hiking or running can put strain on the growing joints, causing long term damage. My advice is to start small and slow. Puppies will exercise themselves with playtimes and rest when they need to. They shouldn’t be out for long walks or jogs until they’re older. Getting them hiking experience is important, but keep long trips and steep inclines for when they’re older and have had a chance to fully develop. I highly recommend starting supplements at an early age. My girl has been on glucosamine/chondroitin, green lipped mussel powder, fish oil and collagen from the start.

  3. Heed the Weather. This is so important. Always keep the weather in mind when you plan to take a hiking trip. Dogs can’t cool off like we can, so a sunny 80 degree day to you might be comfortable, but for your pup, it might mean dangerously overheating. On these days I make sure to plan hikes around bodies of water. Same thing goes for the cold. Not all dogs can handle the low temperatures, so be prepared to need boots or a coat. I’ll notice my dog strongly prefers the cold, but if the temperature gets pretty low, she’ll pick up one foot here and there and I know that’s her sign that it’s too much on her feet. Be mindful of cues like that, and always err on the side of caution. If you have any doubts, listen to your gut. It's not worth putting your pup in danger.

  4. Scoop Your Poop! How frustrating is it to be walking along and suddenly feel the familiar squish beneath your feet, immediately realizing you have stepped in some poo. Pretty frustrating, I know. So you wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone else. Always bring poop bags with you, you never know when your pup might get the urge. I personally always make sure my girl goes potty before we start so I can pick up and dispose of the dirty deed right away. But if we encounter a potty situation while on the trail, I pick it up and either double bag it, or tie it to my pack. Sorry to those hiking behind me, but I don’t smell a thing ;)

  5. Stay Hydrated. My dog drinks as much as me, if not more sometimes, on difficult trails. She has her own water bottle that has the same amount of water as I take for myself, along with a collapsible bowl. I carry the water on my own, as I don’t like to put stress on her joints, but I see many people who have trained their dogs to carry their own gear. I don’t have any issues with this, but please make sure that any weight bearing gear is fitted on your pup properly. The most common thing I see is dogs that are loaded down with a heavy pack that is putting all the strain on the dog’s back. You never want that! When finding a pack, make sure that the weight lies above the shoulders, not the spine. Back injuries and arthritis are not easy to recover from, so just keep that in mind. You get what you pay for in terms of dog gear.

  6. Condition Your Dog. So, you haven't been exercising in years, and you want to start to get out there and experience the outdoors. You wouldn’t lace up some brand new boots and go hike the most strenuous hike you can find, right? Neither would your pup. If your dog has not been accustomed to physical activity like hiking, they will need to build up endurance just like we do. Listen to your dog, and never push them. Heavy panting, curled tongue, and hyperventilating are signs that you need to stop and rest. Make sure to stay hydrated. Start small and work your way up. Keeping your dog lean is also incredibly important. Extra weight puts extra strain on the joints. Food is not love!

  7. Bring First Aid. You know first aid kits are o important in the wilderness. Same goes for your pup! A dog-appropriate first aid kit is a necessity; you don’t want to have to use it, but you’ll be glad to have it. Some items are similar to a human kit, but some are great to have for your dog too. Some of my staples are vet wrap, hydrogen peroxide, tweezers, gauze, triple antibiotic ointment, styptic powder, Benadryl, bandage tape, and musher’s secret paw wax.

  8. Gear Up. I started mentioning some gear above such as packs and boots, but I wanted to make a separate point here. Gear is so situational. What may work for one dog may not work for another. The first thing I would recommend is a well-fitted harness and a comfortable leash. You don’t want the main point of contact being your dog’s neck, making injury and long-term damage a possibility. You want a harness to be comfortable from all angles. Be sure to check contact points for redness and irritation, such as the underarm areas, and the chest. Don’t use harnesses that impede proper function of the shoulder blades. There are some “no pull” harnesses out there that may be okay for walking around your neighborhood, but can cause injury if used while your pup is trying to perform the nessesary jumping and climbing actions needed to hike. My recommendation is that if you need these training aides to control your pup, then do so in a controlled environment and get training under your belt before heading out on a big hike. An out of control pup on a hike is just as dangerous to itself as it is to you and others. Once you have the basics, I suggest you get out there and see what else is needed for you and your dog. Some dogs may require boots, while others never will. As I stated before, I don’t use a pack for my pup because I don’t want to put strain on her joints, (she has early signs of elbow dysplasia), and she’s never had the need to wear a coat (she LOVES the cold).

  9. Bring Proper Nutrition. When it comes to long distance adventures, you need high quality snacks and protein to keep you going, right? Well, the same goes for your pup. When it comes to trail food, I opt for treats with pure ingredients, such as freeze dried or air dried meats. This keeps the weight down, but the quality high. There are also great companies that offer trail bars for your pup, as well as treats that you can also share! There are so many delicious options, so experiment! Just remember, a little at a time. You don’t want to be giving large amounts of food during exercise. Little snacks here and there, and constant supply of water!

  10. Most important rule of all: HAVE FUN! Hiking with my dog is one of the best experiences of my life. She has taught me about independence, overcoming anxiety, and has been my biggest inspiration for my weight loss. Hiking has literally changed my life and I owe it all to the rescue pup I call Anna.


Erin and Anna began their hiking career to overcome anxiety, and in the process have discovered true happiness and a bond that is unlike any other. Be sure to follow their adventures on Instagram: @erinandadventuredog and on Facebook:

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