Spending time together outdoors is pretty much the neatest thing you can do with your dog. Here's how to do it safely.
In the 14 months that we've been together, Wiley's been to Big Sur twice, the High Sierras once, chased coyotes around Joshua Tree, been attacked by a mountain lion in the Sespe Wilderness, tagged along on a dirt bike trip to Death Valley, seen a knife fight at a remote biker bar and climbed most of the mountains surrounding our home in Los Angeles.
Turning him into the ultimate outdoors companion has been a bit of trial and error though. I've made mistakes and we've both paid for them, but I've also learned a lot along the way. I'm not a vet or a dog trainer, but I am someone who's now able to rely on his 16 month old puppy to keep up on long, difficult trips, who trusts him to tackle dangerous obstacles by himself, can rely on him around dangerous wildlife and who sleeps soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that my dog will warn me of any problems. If he doesn't deal with them himself, that is. This is what worked for us, consult your vet about your dog's fitness and special needs and then get out there.
Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your dog. But, you have to start slowly. A dog's joints can be damaged by too much distance or too much exertion too early. The rule of thumb I've heard is 5 minutes of out-of-the-house exercise for each month of age, until the dog is fully-grown, twice daily. So, at three months you're doing 15 minutes, twice daily, and at six months you're doing 30 minutes. That may be Frisbee in the park or a brisk walk or whatever.
Having said that, Wiley started going on long hikes when he was about four months old. I just took it easy, made sure he didn't over-exert himself and had to pick him up and carry him more than a few times. Your dog will tell you if it's too much, it's just up to you to listen.
Don't have your dog carry any weight until he's fully grown. The age at which that occurs depends on breed and size. I waited until Wiley was nearly a year old before putting a backpack on him, and even then made sure it was light.
The most important piece of training you need is a reliable recall. Does your dog come when you call? Even if there's other dogs around? Even if there's distractions? Work on him at a dog park to make him reliable and train him to come both when called, and to a dog whistle; the latter carries much further.
"Leave it" or some other command to stop what they're doing and drop what's in their mouth is also really important. On Saturday, a large snake crossed the trail right in front of us. Wiley went to go grab it, but stopped the second I shouted at him.
Teaching your dog to stay in a car until he's invited to come out is also going to be handy. You don't want him leaping out of the car and running around on the side of a busy road. On a long trip, it's nice to be able to access your luggage, sit on the tailgate and change your shoes or any such open-door activity without having to worry about your dog's safety.
The more commands your dog knows the better, but the most important thing is to use positive reinforcement, encouraging your dog to trust you and demonstrating your trust in him. It's a complex relationship that's about more than a dog doing what he's told. He needs to feel like keeping up with you and staying by your side is a fun thing for him to do.
Wiley's first hike was about a mile long, through the red woods in Big Sur up to a waterfall. It was away from any roads, away from other people and with a couple friends. We took him off his leash at the beginning and he stayed right in the middle of our pack throughout. When we reached obstacles, we let him try and tackle them himself first, then helped him up the slippery rocks or over the running water when needed. A puppy is pretty resistant to damage and needs to develop the confidence and mental flexibility to solve problems himself; just don't allow any scenario to develop where the danger outweighs your ability to quickly and immediately make the puppy safe. It's good if he learns the consequences of falling down, but bad if he hurts himself doing it.
When we reached the waterfall, I slipped and fell in. Wiley — all 11 weeks and 14lbs of him — dove in to save me. That's the kind of behavior you want.
The same approach is applicable to going off-leash. You can learn more about that in dog training manuals — I recommend the Monks of New Skete books — start doing it where it's safe and easy for the dog to behave. That's somewhere with no roads, few people and no other dogs. Then work up to more complex environments. If you don't have a big yard, find a nearby park that's empty during the day or see if you can use a friend's yard. From there progress to local trails, again when they're quiet. Until you can rely on him totally, put your puppy back on the leash well in advance of any roads or other dogs. It's also a good idea to make going back on a leash a positive thing for the dog, not a punishment. Shower him with praise and affection when it's time to go back on.
Set your dog up for success and he will succeed.
Water: Set aside a collapsible or light plastic water bowl and water bottle for your dog right now. Carry a separate bottle of water for the dog, in addition to any you take for yourself. Dogs are unable to sweat, so rely on drinking water in order to cool down. During hikes, give your dog access to water any time you yourself take a break.
Backpacks: On long hikes and multi-day trips, the weight of water and food and other supplies for your dog can really add up, so putting that on his back might save yours. Dogs can safely carry up to 25 percent of their own body weight. When I judged it was time for Wiley to start hauling his own stuff, I bought a cheap Outward Hound pack on Amazon for $30, figuring I'd see if he took to it before investing in something nicer. I strapped it to him for his usual evening hike and carrying it became second nature after the first 15 minutes of confused protesting.
That same, el cheapo pack tore apart on the first day of our first backpacking trip (I rebuilt it stronger than new with paracord) and, this weekend, became a little loose during the hike, resulting in horrible blisters in one armpit and along his side. Wiley gave no signs of pain or discomfort, so it wasn't until the next morning that I discovered how hurt he was. He walked out slowly, with a limp and is taking a few days off this week to recuperate; I learned a lesson and that pack now lives in the trash can, soon to be replaced with something of higher quality. I'll be checking him regularly, throughout hikes in the future.
With any pack, put most of the weight (the water) low and forward, over the dog's shoulders. Don't put anything in there that can't get banged around, shaken up and soaked in water. Packs with secure harnesses and carry handles are great for helping the dog through or over obstacles, but be sure to get a proper weight bearing harness and learn how to use it if you're going to be hoisting the dog anywhere on a rope.
Lights: Any time you're outside during twilight or full dark, you'll want to know where your dog is and allow other people to see him too. A flashing red light that hangs on his collar is the best way to do that. This $6 Nite Ize light has lived on Wiley's collar for the last 6 months or so. It still has its original batteries and works just fine. It's survived multiple trips, submersion in water and all the abuse you can imagine.
Tether: Never leave a tethered dog unattended. But, at night, one can be a good way to keep your dog from wandering outside camp. A braided steel cable, sheathed in plastic is best; the dog can't bite through it. I use this one. At 30 feet, it's long enough to wrap around a big tree or rock whatever, making tying Wiley up easy wherever we are. I rarely have to do that anymore though.
First Aid: We'll go over dog first aid more in depth in a future article. Until then, it's very much worth investigating and preparing for on your own. Most dog first aid is the same as human first aid — stop bleeding, prevent infection — but gets a little more complicated when it comes to medicine. You can buy readymade dog first aid kits to supplement your human one.
Fleas and ticks: I put a Bayer Seresto collaron Wiley a few months ago and he hasn't had a single flea or tick since. Not bad when you consider the $50 collar lasts eight months. Frontline never kept the buggers off. Spraying coconut oil across his coat has also proved effective and is a healthy alternative.
Predators: If you have a big dog, all you have to worry about is other dogs, other humans and, if you're in their habitat, brown bears. If you have a small dog, then it's time to worry about coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and other dogs. If it's a very small dog, add big birds to that list. If your recall is 100 percent reliable, then you don't have to worry about any of this.
Snakes: They sell a rattlesnake vaccine, but I don't like the sound of putting poison in Wiley's body once every year. Instead, get your dog trained in snake avoidance. A handler will bring snakes either with plastic cups taped over their heads or in cages, fit your dog with an electro shock collar, then walk him around the snakes, zapping the dog anytime he approaches or shows interest in a snake. It sounds cruel, but it works. Your vet or a good pet food store should be able to recommend a snake trainer in your area.
Getting too cold or too hot is the fastest, easiest way for a human to die and the same thing goes for dogs. Spend less time worrying about rattlesnakes and grizzly bears and more time worrying about hyperthermia.
In the summer, plan hikes around water. If your dog has a readily accessible source of water to drink and splash around in, he won't overheat. Don't be tempted to shave your dog (although some very long haired dogs will benefit from a trim), hair acts like a radiator, helping them shed heat, in addition to protecting them from sunburn and scrapes from thorns and rocks. Keep an eye out for signs of overheating — coughing, laying down in the shade instead of keeping up, excessive panting, lethargy — and give your dog a break and water the second you see any of that occurring.
In the winter, don't think that your dog is immune to the cold just because he's wearing a fur coat. A spoiled housedog will adapt to moderate temperatures just like you do. If it's cold, keep them warm with a dog coat and look for signs of freezing — limping, shivering, walking hunched over — and get them to a warm place immediately. Snow, ice and the chemicals put down on roads and sidewalks to melt it all hurt a dog's paws. Booties are a great idea if you're going outside in cold weather. You can also help by keeping their paw fur trimmed (a hair trimmer works fine) or using a balm. Vaseline works too.
Also think about hydration and nutrition during the winter. Not all dogs know how to eat snow or want to. Like you, your dog will need more calories and more fat to stay warm when it's cold. A bouillon cube in warm water will get a dog to drink and warm them up before bed. They also need to get off the ground and under something warm just like you do.
Dog Life On The Trail
Now, when bags and tents and boots start getting pulled out of the closet, Wiley knows what's up and excitedly runs around the house until it's time to go. Hold up his backpack and he'll run over, sit down and patiently wait while you slip it over his head and fasten the buckles. If it's just the two of us, he'll stay within a hundred yards or so of me and stay on the trail. If it's a group, he likes to walk in the middle, keeping an eye on everyone. Last weekend, he kept limping back to check on stragglers if they lagged too far behind. I don't need to worry about him around animals or people or dangerous obstacles, but sometimes I do need to lift him over a boulder or pass him down a cliff. He rarely seems more content than when he's sleeping next to a campfire.
Getting there has been nerve wracking at times. I've watched him stand on the very edge of a thousand foot cliff and look down and constantly fret about snakes. It also wasn't a turnkey thing, we progressed, little by little, until we trusted each other and into activities that he could comfortably manage. If you're patient, start small and work on building the kind of relationship where you dog is reliable, responsive and focused on you, then you'll be able to take your dog on adventures too. It's worth it.
Lead and final images: Chris Brinlee Jr
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.