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How tired are you of staying home? Bet you and your dog are ready to hit the road and head off down the nearest forest path. But is your dog’s body in tip-top shape? We’ve got five tips for great dog conditioning for hiking. Get ready to jump back on the trails.

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Staying home gives us all itchy feet. Admit it – you are ready to GO! We all want to get out and explore, breathe in fresh air and soak in all the beauty surrounding us. But in order to strap on your backpack and chase waterfalls, your dog needs to have a strong, resilient body. You need stamina to tackle the elevation gains. You need great balance for handling slippery streambeds. And energy for lots of miles.

Begin planning with these canine conditioning tips for hiking with your dog.

Dog in great condition for hiking in Tennessee, standing on a rock ledge near a waterfall.

I know, it sounds more sexy to just grab your dog, your backpack and head off on an adventure. But trust me – the time you take to prepare your dog will pay off in the long run.

Yes, gear lists are great. Who doesn’t love the next coolest gadget or clothing that is functional and fun? But new gear doesn’t make you physically able to complete that trail.

So, hello Newbies – I’m talking to you here! You NEED to make sure your dog is ready to handle whatever the trail throws at you.

Old pros at this? Veteran hikers, don’t let your track record or ego get in the way. Slow down, take some time to get back in the hiking routine without risking injuries.

1. Vet Checked and Certified!

It’s for safety’s sake. Not to mention your peace of mind.

BIG NOTE: Right now, a visit to your veterinarian should be reserved for emergency purposes only. Take a moment to get familiar with performing a physical exam on your dog. From nose to tail, top to bottom, feel along her body for anything abnormal or any painful spots. Give those paws an extra look-see to make sure there are no cracks or lacerations to the pads. Watch her movement when she walks; any limping or abnormality of gait is an indication to go easy on exercise to allow injuries to heal.

Especially for you ‘greenpaws,’ hiking can put extra stresses on your dog’s body. Your veterinarian can give your doggo a thorough exam to make sure there are no hidden issues or conditions. This is especially important if your dog has had injuries in the past, is a brachycephalic breed or you’re planning to have your dog carry his own backpack.

Even if your dog is a veteran of the trails, having your vet or a canine physical therapist do a hands-on check at least once a year is a smart idea.

Smart for your wallet, too. Injuries and treatments? Those can add up fast.

Physical problems don’t mean you CAN’T hike; you’ll just need to hike smart.

A word about puppies and seniors: Yes, they can hike. With some caveats:

Puppies are not ready for extended periods of hiking (or even walking) until their growth plates have closed. This will be different for each individual pup. Larger breeds can take up to 18 months before those plates close! Ask your vet for guidance about how long your pup should walk at each age. Injuries that occur when the growth plates haven’t closed can be a life-long handicap. Please don’t risk it!

Want to bring your pup on a hike? Then you’ll need a K9 Sport Sack to carry her most of the way. Short walks on level terrain are a great introduction to hiking. Then she can enjoy the view from her backpack.

Senior dog? Follow their lead. Even an old pro at hiking will need to slow down, rest and shorten his mileage. Level terrain is a plus for our senior friends. Again, ask your veterinarian for advice on your senior.

How to shape it up for everyone:

  • You can do it. Get a quick check-up.

2. Up Your Nutrition

C’mon – you knew I was going to mention it! All athletes focus on a nutrient dense diet. Pretty sure Tom Brady or Serena Williams aren’t noshing on McDonald’s during training season. Hiking can be just as physically taxing as a lot of sports. Your dog needs strong bones and muscles, a robust cardiovascular system and a healthy immune system to tackle the trails.

If you’re not yet feeding a whole food, canine appropriate diet, now’s the time to start!

If your dog has any health conditions, you’ll want to work with your veterinarian. Otherwise, there are so many great resources online to learn about optimum nutrition. Isn’t it amazing the variety of choices we now have at our local pet food stores?

Your dog’s weight? That’s important. An overweight dog on the trails means a lot more stress. Her heart has to pump harder. There’s additional stress on those joints. Those extra pounds need to go. Bye!

You could wait until you’re hiking; it is a perfect way to lose some extra chub-chub. But losing the weight beforehand will help prevent injuries that could postpone your hiking adventures.

There’s no hard and fast rules about appropriate weight. Instead of looking at the scale, look instead at your dog’s body. Can you easily feel their ribs? Does your dog waddle when they walk? Do they look round or oval when viewed from above or are they flat and lean?

Even for highly athletic dogs, extra pounds can pack on during weeks or months of slowed activity. Your dog is used to a certain level of exercise per week. If those hours of physical activity decrease – and her meals do not? It’s not uncommon to see some weight gain. Yep, same for us two-legs – don’t we know it?

Chart from WSAVA Canine Body Condition Score

How to shape it up for everyone:

  • Begin serving a whole food, nutritionally dense diet that is appropriate for your individual dog.
  • Check for signs of being overweight (or underweight!)
  • Eliminate free-choice feeding. Serve your dog two meals per day. Allow them 10 minutes for finishing and then remove the food.
  • Cut out the treats and snacks for now.
  • If you are training and are wondering about using treats, try using a portion of your dog’s meal as rewards.

3. Start Small

Your goal is to Have Fun with your dog. Being a weekend warrior? That’s the road to Not Fun with your dog. Too much too soon is asking for injuries and heartache.

Dog conditioning for hiking is like climbing a ladder : remember to just do it one rung at a time.

How to shape it up for newbie hikers:

  • Begin with getting your dog up and moving every single day. Just a short walk around the neighborhood to get the heart pumping and the limbs moving. A walk for smaller dogs will be less time and distance than their bigger cousins.

How to shape it up for veteran hikers:

  • If your dog is already a champion hiker but you’ve been off for a few weeks or months, you’ve got to remind yourself to ease back into it. It’s tempting, I know, to jump in the car and head to your favorite 5-mile trail. Give yourself some grace. Head for the easy, 1-mile loop around the lake for your first time out. It’ll give your body time to recalibrate.

4. Add in Challenges

Don’t stop with the easy stuff! Begin, one-at-a-time, to add in some challenges. Hiking isn’t about the easy flat trail. It’s about elevation changes, uneven footing, rocky scrambles, obstacles and duration. The fun stuff!

How to shape it up for newbie hikers:

  • Add in one differing factor for your dog each walk. Instead of taking a flat surfaced walk for 1 hour, try one with a bit of uphill climb.
  • Observe your dog. Is she out of breath, excessive panting or asking for frequent rests? Too far, too fast. Try slowing down, cutting back on your walk time or walking for a shorter distance. Her endurance will build up in time.
  • Once your dog is breezing through one challenge, add another.
  • Try adding in climbing obstacles, different surfaces, longer distances.
  • Have a treadmill at home? Your dog can learn to use it for increasing stamina.

How to shape it up for veteran hikers:

  • Lucky you – you can increase your distance and time much quicker. That muscle memory goes for dogs as well as humans. Simply keep an eye on your dog. So many high energy breeds have the work ethic to keep going past the point of exhaustion. They can also continue through injuries. Bite the bullet and return to your normally scheduled hiking routine gradually.
  • Consider adding in canine conditioning exercises to your daily routine. If you have FitPAWS equipment handy, it’s excellent for dog conditioning for hiking. Follow all the core strengthening exercises. And if you don’t have any canine conditioning equipment, now’s the perfect time to get some!
Woman with her arm around her dog sitting on a rock ledge looking at a distant waterfall.

5. Obedience Training for the Trail

While you’re working on conditioning for hiking, think about conditioning your dog’s trail etiquette. I’m betting your dog has his basic obedience commands in place (sit, down, stay.) But there are a few other essential commands he needs. This tip will help your pup to be the ultimate trail dog.

To keep everyone safe while hiking, dogs need to know how to leave something alone. They need to understand how to wait and how to stay by your side to pass other hikers, mountain bikers or horse riders. And if they are – even for a moment – off leash, they need a reliable recall.

Practice, practice, and practice some more.

How to shape it up for everyone:

  • ‘Leave It’ This command means to ignore whatever the dog is showing interest in. Whether that is an object on the ground, wildlife, a tall waterfall or another approaching dog, it can be a lifesaver.
  • ‘Wait’ You might be thinking: “How is this different from ‘stay?’ There’s a subtle difference your dog will pick up on quickly. ‘Stay’ means a longer duration. Your dog has no clue when she’ll be released and should be relaxed in a ‘stay.’ ‘Wait’ implies to your dog that the pause is only momentary; “wait and be ready to move when I say.” So your dog is alert and waiting for you to signal when something new is going to happen.
  • ‘By Me’ or “By My Side’ In obedience training that would be a ‘heel.’ But for your dog, it means to get to your side as quickly as possible and stay there. Good trail etiquette requires you to take your dog and step aside to allow other hikers to pass on narrow trails. Not all people like dogs (isn’t that crazy?) and it’s a simple courtesy to others.
  • ‘Come’ Whatever word or way you choose (could be a whistle!) your dog needs to be able to come back to you anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult commands for many dogs to reliably follow. Some dogs may never be 100% reliable. It is worth practicing over and over.

You’ve heard the old saying that it’s all about the journey and not the destination. That is 100 % truth when it comes to hiking with your dog. Let’s make sure you and your dog are physically ready to enjoy that journey to the fullest.

What are your favorite ways to prepare for hiking? Share in comments below.

We’ve got a great gear guide coming up soon – stay tuned!

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