You have heard us go on and on about how ingrained the stereotype of small dogs is – of how they are often underestimated and are capable of so much more. We even wrote a guest post about it over at Will My Dog Hate Me? and I compiled a list of the 10 most common comments we hear on the trail (implying they very surprised to see small dogs out hiking).
On our blog, we share our stories and talk about the miles we have hiked up steep mountains, over the rocks, and through the snow. We wish to inspire others to do the same.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression though – we don’t believe that a sedentary dog should get off the couch and go conquer the highest peak in your area tomorrow (unless you can drive to the top. Ha, ha). Dogs are just like people, they need to build up strength and stamina first to help prevent injury.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Gretel is 7 and her most difficult hike was 10 miles a day, three days in a row. It’s not safe for a dog to do that though if they aren’t used to hiking.
I started with shorter, easier hikes when I first took Chester and Gretel hiking (respectively, they learned to hike at different times). When it was obvious they handled those hikes no problem and wanted more, I let them take on bigger and bigger challenges.
This is how I trained them to hike.
How to Condition Your Dog For Hiking
Note: I’m not a veterinarian, a dog or people physical trainer, or a dog conditioning expert. However, from my experiences training for my own marathon and hiking with small dogs for over 10 years, I get the concept of conditioning and building physical endurance. I’m sharing what I know, and has worked for us, here. Also, ALWAYS CHECK WITH YOUR VET BEFORE STARTING YOUR DOG ON A NEW EXERCISE ROUTINE.
The first thing I did was make sure that my dogs were walking regularly. I was walking around the neighborhood 3-5 times a week. The majority of those walks were for 45 minutes or more. I’m not talking a “sniff walk” either. We were on a mission. I didn’t let them stop for breaks (they tried at first but soon caught on that I expected them to keep going) and we walked briskly.
Walking in itself is a great workout. You can calculate how many calories you burn walking your dog HERE.
Once they were used to walking regularly, we progressed to hiking. Chester’s first hike was pretty flat and not very long (I started Gretel with something harder because I could see she was very athletic) to see how he liked it. He wasn’t too tired when we finished so we walked on similar terrain but further the next time. After that, we progressed to longer and steeper hikes.
This is how I suggest working your dog up to longer hikes (and keeping them in hiking shape):
- Walk your dog around the neighborhood, or on urban paths, on pretty flat terrain at a brisk pace (a pace of around 15 minutes per mile, or four miles per hour). Work up to 45 minutes for a minimum of 3 times a week.
- Once you know they can handle that, start taking them for shorter walks (about 30 minutes at first) but incorporate hills. You can progress to walks that are a little longer and/or have more hills. Note: you will want to continue these walks at least 3 days a week even once you start hiking to avoid “weekend warrior” syndrome, which can potentially lead to injury.
- When you are ready to start hiking with your dog, choose a trail that is relatively flat without obstacles (think a nice wooded path). Since your dog is used to walking around the neighborhood, they will likely be able to hike 1-2 miles easily. Remember, that distance is round trip so you’ll want to turn around at some point – definitely before they seem like they are getting tired.
- If they do ok on that, you can start increasing the length and steepness of your hikes. It’s best to only increase one thing at a time – longer with same steepness one time and same length but steeper the time after that. Watch your dog carefully to see when they start to get tired. The goal is to finish the hike like they had a good workout but not to tire them out so much that they collapse and sleep for 2 whole days afterward.
The sky is the limit from here on out. Kind of. Each dog is an individual and their endurance and stamina depends on a lot of things like how much they like hiking, their breed, their temperament, their age, how often you hike, weather conditions, terrain, etc. The key is to know the signs that YOUR dog has been pushed too far and stop when they get there (ideally, you would stop before they get to this point).
Some dogs won’t ever hike more than 5 miles. I also know of a few dogs – even small dogs – that can do 18 miles in a day no problem. My own personal limit is 10-15 miles a day (at 15, I’m pretty exhausted) so Chester and Gretel probably will never attempt hiking longer than that. It’s just important to know your own dog’s limit. Chester did hike 15 miles with me once and it was clear that was too much for him. Gretel has hiked 10 miles in a day. She neared that “too tired” point so I’m not sure I would ever try to push her past that distance.
How to Prevent Injury and Keep Your Dog On the Trail
Just because your dog CAN hike, doesn’t mean they are good to go anywhere, any time. I admit that we tend toward being the “weekend warrior” and I can assure you that is NOT a good idea. Like with people, doing nothing during the week and then being really active on the weekends can cause injury (to the humans involved too). This is something I’m always trying to work on.
There are some things you should do to help ensure your dog stays injury free:
- Like I said above, maintain a normal walking routine at home. Be sure to keep walking your dog 3-5 days a week even if they have “progressed” to hiking. It’s important to maintain their cardiovascular fitness and walking regularly keeps their supportive muscles flexible and strong.
- Like with people, its ideal to stretch your dog a little after each hike. Check out these 4 Simple, Gentle Stretches For Your Dog You Can Complete in Minutes a Day. Doga (yoga with your dog) is also a fun way for both of you to stretch. Massage in conjunction with stretching is also helpful.
- Have your dog do some conditioning and strengthening exercises at least once a week. Honestly, this is not something I thought of until Gretel hurt her back. I admit it’s a struggle to fit this into my already busy routine but I know it’s important because I saw a big difference in Gretel’s strength and form when we were doing them (I’m aiming to get back to her doing a couple of these things once a week, minimum).
- Remember that everyone needs a rest day. Even if your dog is a super athlete, they will need some down-time to recover. After exercise hydration, nutrition, and relaxation is important. Check out this article on exercise recovery for dogs for more info.
With a little preparation, adventure and fun in the mountains for you and your small dog is within reach. Be safe and have fun out there!