Cover image: Blaze and Lina hitting the trail. All images: Lina Thompson
I have been a dog lover forever. I cannot remember a time when we didn’t have one as part of the family. This spring, when my son Jacob and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail, I decided I'd like a canine companion. I contacted my friend at Camp Jean All Breed Rescue and it did not take long for Jean to find us the perfect dog.
I adopted a beautiful German shepherd. At first, Blaze was quite timid. This is completely understandable considering that these animals may have been abused or abandoned. No one knows Blaze’s history. He was turned into a shelter in Eastern Kentucky but almost immediately, we grew quite attached and he would follow me everywhere.
It was at this time that I knew Blaze was ready to join me on my long-distance hikes.
I have a very active lifestyle and needed a breed that can keep up. German shepherds are strong and hearty for this type of activity but every owner must know the strengths and weaknesses of their own breeds. Not every dog is suited for long-distance hikes. In my case, I know that German shepherds were bred as working dogs, so they have a natural evolutionary history to handle extreme treks and can handle exhaustion much better than others, and they can be trained very efficiently.
At first, we didn’t go for long mileage, as I knew Blaze wouldn’t be able to handle it, but over time we kept pushing a little bit further, each time increasing the distance. Dogs have been domesticated over time, just like us, and need to train a little if they are to engage in some seriously strenuous activities. Paw strength, endurance, energy, and more must all be increased slowly over time, just like it is with us. Owners who fail to realize this have often had cases were their best friends have collapsed, completely dehydrated. It is absolutely crucial that you become ‘one’ with your dog on these journeys to be able to tell if they can make it, is getting tired, needs water etc. Here are some tips to give your dog the best chances of succeeding on long distance hikes;
Before your long-distance hike:
Start conditioning your dog months in advance.
Condition your dog by going on daily short-mileage hikes and increase the distance gradually.
Train a little more competitively by attaching an empty pack to your dog.
Add weight gradually until you reach the recommended limit for your breed.
Take your dog on over-night trips and observe how well they do.
Teach your dog to sleep inside of a tent or under a tarp.
When Off-leash training; build a reliable recall for your dog especially if they have interest in wildlife. It is very important that your dog returns immediately when called.
During your long-distance hike:
Provide natural and alternative food instead of wet, canned, or dry generic brands.
Give your dog an aspirin after an extremely tiring day (always consult your vet first!).
Apply paw wax onto their paws afterwards, especially after walking long hours on hard terrain.
Be perceptive of the signs: fatigue, pain, exhaustion, dehydration etc.
If your dog doesn’t like something, you need to notice and remove the item (such as the backpack)
Controlling your dog and understanding your dog are two different things however, so make sure you have a mutual respect where they know who’s in charge while hiking whether that be on the trail or at shelter/camp.
Other Important things to consider:
Not all dogs are cut-out for long-distance hiking regardless of the breed.
You must be willing to carry your dog’s load if they can’t carry it.
Have an alternative arrangements for your dog if they can’t continue to hike and be welling to get off the trail with them if needed.
The cost of long-distance hiking increases with a dog. Unexpected vet bills is one example.
With that, I wish you the best of luck in your hiking trails with your old (or new) buddies! I have to take off to “Blaze” another trail…