Tips for Hiking with Small Dogs

Short Legs Hit the Trail
By John Hovey, February 2011, Updated February 2015
Hiking with Small Dog

Most weekends in fall, I pick a mountain to hike near my home in Portland, Ore. “How did that little guy get all the way up here?” someone will ask. “She’s a she,” I’ll say, “and she does it all the time.” Chuckie, my Miniature Dachshund, will prance around like it’s no big deal, which it isn’t. But I’m often surprised by the attention we get. There’s no reason to leave the outdoors to larger breeds. Little dogs deserve to hike, too, and like all dogs, they need exercise to stay healthy.

Of course, you should check your trail’s rules to see if dogs are allowed, and if they must be kept on a leash. It’s smart to leash your small dog anyway, with a harness, to better manage encounters with other hikers and their dogs, mountain bikers, equestrians, wild animals, and so on. Your pet should have her flea-and-tick treatment up-to-date and should wear a collar with her ID tags and your cell number. Clean up after your dog just like you would anywhere else, and don’t leave any baggies along the trail. Gift-wrapped or not, that’s a present nobody wants to receive.

Dr. Kristin Sulis of Mt. Tabor Veterinary Care says, “Remember that your little dog has to work twice as hard on the trail, so plan accordingly. With small dogs, you want to be sure to bring plenty of snacks for energy, and water.” I use a BPA-free Nalgene bottle to give Chuckie small drinks of water every half-hour, and the cap serves as a little bowl. It’s small enough that she won’t slurp up too much at once and make herself sick. Small dogs’ calorie requirements can double on hike days, so Chuckie also gets a little snack at every break. I bring her favorite treats so I know she won’t refuse to eat.

“Another thing to remember about small dogs is that they won’t self-limit the way larger ones will,” says Michelle Fredette, owner of Portland’s dog-trekking service Wag Masters. Your little one might run herself into trouble, exhausting herself or overheating if you don’t help her take it easy. If your dog is new to hiking, it’s best to check with your vet and then start small, with short hikes on easy trails. Watch to see that she’s not excessively panting, wobbly on her legs or plain pooped out. If there’s a difficult stretch of trail or if she gets too tired, be ready to lead her an easier way, or carry her. You might find a small pouch or backpack to use as a carrier if you’ll be hiking farther than, say, one mile per pound your dog weighs.


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Other health concerns for the trail include poison ivy and paw maintenance. Poison ivy and poison oak rarely cause rashes on dogs — the plants’ irritating oil urushiol must work its way through their fur down to skin level — but it is possible for your dog to pick up the oil on her coat and inadvertently transfer it to you. Learn these plants and keep away. Check the pads of your dog’s feet for wounds from thorns or sharp rocks, especially if she’s stopping to lick or gnaw at her paws. Consider booties for extra-delicate feet.

Finally, keep a towel or blanket in your vehicle if you’ll be driving home after your hike. Reward your dog with a bath, check her for ticks and bristles, and thank yourself for giving her a great day. Trust me on this: Your Labrador-owning friends will raise their eyebrows and say, “Wait, you did what?”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 61: Sept/Oct 2010

Art Credit: John Hovey

John Hovey leads wilderness expeditions for NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and teaches rescue classes for the Wilderness Medicine Institute.