I recently announced plans for my 4-day backpacking trip. I will be hiking with my 11 lb miniature Dachshund Gretel for 7 – 10 miles a day. Someone left a comment on that blog post scolding me for having “bad judgement” because “Dachshunds aren’t built for this kind of “adventure.” I responded that her comment was a bit judgmental. (Ahem – breaking the stereotypes of what people think “poor” small dogs aren’t capable of is a huge part of what this blog is about).
A lot of things factor into a dog’s hiking ability. Surprisingly, size is not at the top of the list. Things that matter most are a dog’s age, health, physical condition and “ability to breathe well”. For example, a dog with a heart murmur or diabetes may not be suited for hiking long distances (or hiking at all). A dog that has had back, knee, or hip problems may not be suited for hiking long distances. Brachycephalic dogs – those with short snouts who can have a harder time breathing like mastiffs, bulldogs, and pugs – may not be suited for hiking long distances.
I say “may” because there is no black and white rule and I am no vet. I can say that I have encountered dogs of almost all breeds and sizes out on the trail.
So how far can your dog hike? Besides the factors I mentioned above, it depends on how much your dog likes it and what kind of shape they are in. Although I am planning to hike 7 – 10 miles a day with Gretel this weekend, we didn’t get off the couch yesterday and decide to do it. Before I started Gretel hiking, I got the Ok from the vet that she was in good health and capable of it. We also started easy and slow and I let her work her way up.
My two Dachshunds, Chester and Gretel, have been hiking with me for years. With both dogs, I started hiking with them on shorter trails – about 1 – 3 miles – until I was sure they liked it and could do it without being stiff and sore or excessively tired afterward. Once it was clear they had a desire to go farther, I let them. We still kept our hikes to around 5 miles for a while. After several months, we started venturing out on longer trails and, eventually, steeper hikes. The whole time I would watch them closely for signs to make sure they weren’t pushing themselves too far. We would turn around when they had enough and increase mileage a little when it was clear they could handle more.
Eventually Chester worked up to 12 miles. At 13, anything over 7 or 8 miles is too long for him now. Gretel has hiked up to 8.5 miles and I think that 10 is probably going to be her limit. Really, 10 miles a day is a lot for most people and dogs. I know some people who push themselves to hike 15 – 20 miles a day. Like I said, it depends on the dog, but I would venture to say that there aren’t many dogs that can hike 20 miles in one day.
I won’t lie, the hike this weekend will be a challenge for us. Although Gretel has hiked almost 9 miles in a day before, and she has hiked 8 miles two days in a row, she has never hiked 8-10 miles, 4 days in a row. I honestly don’t know how she is going to do on this trip. Heck, I don’t know how *I* will do. I am pretty out of shape with bad knees and a bad back. Does that mean we shouldn’t do it? I don’t think so. Although I don’t KNOW how she will do, I have a pretty good idea she’ll blow me away again with her athletic ability. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even think about doing it.
I’ve been hiking for almost 20 years. Half of that has been with one or both of my little Dachshund buddies. I have enough experience to know my limit, know what Chester and Gretel’s current limits are, and know that I should have a plan B in case we have to cut the hike short for any reason. I am 100% confident that I will use good judgement and keep us safe.
So how do you know if your dog has hiked too far?
It is normal for all dogs to pant a little, and breathe a little heavy, when they are exerting a lot of physical effort. However, these signs show your dog may be crossing the line into “this is too much for me.”
- EXCESSIVE PANTING – This panting is often accompanied with a distended tongue. Drooling may or may not be present. If your dog stops drooling, it usually means they are dehydrated and that can be dangerous. (note: this sign alone is usually not a problem – just make sure your dog has plenty of water – but, combined with another sign below, is a visual warning sign.
- Very HEAVY BREATHING – If your dog is “heaving” when it breathes, or its breath doesn’t start to go back to normal after a 15 minute break, it’s probably had enough for the day.
- WALKING SLOWER – This is THE clearest indicator with Chester and Gretel. Their signs of fatigue start with slower walking. I’m not talking about stopping to sniff a lot. In my experience, it’s noticeable when they had been hiking beside or in front of me and suddenly they are hiking behind me. By the time your dog slows down, it’s best to turn around or already be on the way back to the trailhead.
- Getting WOBBLY ON THEIR FEET
- LAMENESS or LIMPING – If your dog is suddenly limping, assuming you checked the pads of their feet for injury or debris, they probably strained something or something is starting to hurt from over-use.
It is VERY important to understand that many dogs will keep going and going, whether they are tired or not. It’s also important to understand that every dog is different so you should get you know YOUR dog’s warning signs. As a reader recently pointed out, the biggest factors in how far your dog can go are usually heat and terrain. The hotter and/or steeper it is, the less distance they will be able to hike.
Can I say that I have never pushed Chester or Gretel too far? No. Once he got rubbed raw between the pads of his feet from shale rocks and I had to carry him out 6 miles.
Sometimes it accidentally happens. As with most things in life, you often don’t know where a limit is until you reach it. Thankfully, it’s only happened a handful of times in 10 years and there were no significant injuries. The key is to learn from your mistakes and make changes for your dog in the future.
“Know your limits” (of both you and your dog) is really the #1 rule of hiking with your dog in my book. If you know and respect limits, it will help to keep you and your dog healthy and happy for many more miles on the trail.
Happy Tails and Trails!