It’s no longer healthy for my dogs to be weekend warriors. Truthfully, it never was.
When Gretel was young, and I was younger too, we could sit on the couch for weeks, go out and hike 15 miles, and easily do it again the next day. Then age happened.
Honestly, though, each time we pulled something like that off, I was risking injury for her.
Like with people, in order to reduce the change of injury from hiking, she needed to start with shorter and easier hikes, build her fitness up, and stay active.
Now, at the beginning of each hiking season, I get her physically prepared before we start hiking the big mountains.
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How to Condition Your Dog for Hiking Season: Our Plan
A few years ago, Gretel hurt her back and was diagnosed with Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD). Her back injury was not bad enough to warrant surgery, and she was never paralyzed like some dogs with IVDD are, but she did need several months of rehab to recover.
As it turns out, much of her “recovery” exercises are good for increasing stamina, strength, balance, and flexibility for all dogs before or during high activity periods.
The exercises are especially important for athletic dogs that hike, do agility, or participate in other sports.
Based on my past experience, this is the training plan I’m implementing for Gretel.
Note: I’m not a veterinarian. I have worked closely with a rehab vet though and understand that these exercises are universally helpful. However, you should always check with your vet first before starting your dog on a new exercise routine.
Also, you may want to do more research, or go see a doggy physical trainer, to make sure your dog is doing the exercises properly. Doing them improperly can lead to injury or, at the very least, will render them ineffective.
Start Walking Regularly
Walking regularly is one of the biggest keys to a dog getting fit and staying fit.
Walking can help them maintain a healthy weight, which puts less strain on their joints and heart. It also uses almost every muscle in their body and improves their cardiovascular fitness.
Ideally, the walks would start out shorter and flatter and build to longer hikes that incorporate hills.
Prior to starting our hiking season, I aim for 4-5, 30-60 minute walks a weeks on varied terrain. We start walking regularly on flatter trails and then start incorporating hills or short sprints.
To avoid weekend warrior syndrome, I make sure my dog maintains regular walks in between big hikes.
Incorporate Dog Fitness Exercises
When Gretel was recovering from her back injury, we were given a whole bunch of exercises to do (click the link to see them all).
The exercises were designed to balance her muscles, increase coordination and balance, and make her core strong so it supports her back.
Now that she has recovered, I admit that I don’t do the exercises with her as consistently as I used to. Every little bit helps though.
Below are the exercises that I still do with her occasionally during hiking season.
They require either .
Balance ball stand (aka. all 4 unstable)
This exercise strengthens the core.
It’s important to keep your dog’s topline (back) straight and neutral while your dog is fully standing, not squatting or resting on their hocks (trying to crouch or sit).
For this exercise, it’s about standing properly and balancing on an unstable surface.
Paws up to rear paw target
This exercise strengthens the core, rear, and chest muscles.
The idea of this exercise is to encourage a weight shift to the front from the back legs while standing on an unstable surface.
Standing with their front paws on the FITbone and their back feet on the ground, your dog’s head should be held up and their back should be straight.
Have them hold this position for 10 – 15 seconds. Then have your dog walk over the FITbone so their front paws are on ground and only their back feet are on the unstable surface. Have them hold that for 10 – 15 seconds too. Then either have them step down, walk around the bone, and start over.
To make the exercise more difficult, ask your dog to back up and put both of their front and back feet on the bone, and then back up some more to step their back feet off.
This exercise teaches your dog body and hind leg awareness.
A helpful way to start is to create a chute with an X-pen or pillows and entice your dog into it with a treat.
Ask your dog to walk in and then back out in one fluid movement (don’t pause at the end – this is key). Ideally, they will step backwards instead of crouching and scooting backwards.
If your dog is wary of the chute, you can start with leading them in just a little and then increasing the depth. Once your dog understands what they are being asked to do, you can progress to asking them to back up with no walls on either side.
(this video shows Gretel practicing it in a wire “chute” but now that she knows what I’m asking of her she can do it without it).
If you are not familiar with Cavaletti rails, they are like several small horse jumps in a row.
The goal is to get your dog to step over them one leg at a time – first front, second front, first back, second back – without hopping or jumping.
It teaches them body awareness and to pay attention to what their feet are doing. Also, it teaches them to pick up/bend their back legs instead of walking stiff-legged (like Gretel used to do).
It might be a good idea to start with 4-6 rails laid on the ground – placed as far apart as the dog is tall at the shoulders – and then progress to poles that are elevated about 1-2 inches off of the ground, depending on your dog’s height.
You can buy a set of these cavaletti rails for dogs (or hurdle set as they are sometimes called).
Supplements That Can Help Keep Your Hiking Dog Healthy
Supplements don’t exactly fall under “conditioning” but I think they’re important to help my dogs stay healthy and injury-free so I’m mentioning them here.
The ones I give Gretel consistently during this conditioning phase, and throughout the hiking season, to address joint pain and inflammation are:
Fish oil is a great source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which reduce inflammation, assist in cardiovascular fitness, and provide other benefits to the body.
Both are 100% real salmon oil from wild Alaskan Salmon to ensure the source fish are free of harmful toxins and disease.
Hemp CBD (Cannabidiol) Oil
CBD oil is derived from industrial hemp and contains no THC, the compound that produces a “high”, so it’s safe for dogs.
Benefits of CBD include reducing inflammation, reducing pain, and increasing muscle repair after strenuous exercise. There are many other benefits that include potentially fighting cancer.
I’ve tried several of the CBD products for dogs on the market with Gretel and the one I think believe in the most, and seems to work best, is from HempMy Pet.
Turmeric (Curcumin) Golden Paste
There are a whole slew of good things this ground root can do for your dog but the two biggest are reducing inflammation and pain associated with aging and damaged joints.
Turmeric has been found to be more effective if it’s turned into a “golden paste” first. This is the recipe for golden turmeric paste I use (I don’t like to cook but this is super simple to make).
This supplement supports spinal health.
It combines bovine tracheal cartilage with amino acids, mineral sulfates, vitamins, pepsin, and natural silicon sources to help support and maintain connective and disk tissue.
The brand of supplement we use varies. There are several high-quality joint products that I trust and I think that rotating them, along with any others that sound promising, gives the most benefit (because each one contains a little something different or varying amounts of the best stuff).
You can see the whole (long) list of supplements that my dogs take HERE.
How Long Will It Take to Get Your Dog into Hiking Shape?
How long it will take your dog to get into shape for the hiking season varies. Each dog is different and there are a lot of things that factor into it.
For example, age, whether they are carrying extra weight or not, how in shape they are before starting this conditioning training, and how long it’s been since their last period of sustained exercise all factor into the equation.
The important thing is to start slow and increase the effort and duration as time goes on. Keep an eye out for signs that they have been pushed too far like soreness, limping, and repetitively licking the same area (this can signal pain) and back off for a few days if you need to.
You can help them recover from exercise sessions by massaging their muscles.
Based on my past experience, both with Gretel and my own marathon training, I would say the average minimum time is 6-8 weeks.
Your Turn. How do you get your dog ready for hiking season or ensure they stay physically fit?