There’s nothing finer for a dog-owning outdoor enthusiast than hitting the trail with their four-legged friends. The exercise benefits for both dog and owner are obvious but the mental health benefits for both are just as great. The pure joy dogs exhibit while engrossing themselves in the wonderful scents of the great outdoors is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Without this physical and emotional stimulation, many dogs turn to destructive behaviors to relieve their boredom and anxiety. This can exhibit itself as inappropriate hyperactivity such as chewing objects, digging holes or excessive barking. It can also manifest itself as self-destructive behavior such as obsessive licking or chewing at an area of their body resulting in painful and even infected wounds.
It may seem simple to just load up your dog and head out on a regular basis, but there are some things to take into consideration to ensure your canine companion stays healthy. First of all, is your dog old enough to withstand a long hike or cross country run? Growing dogs, especially of the large breed variety, should not engage in prolonged heavy exercise until their bone structure is almost mature. The long bones of the limbs depend on areas of cartilage to provide bone growth and to protect the surfaces of bones found in a joint. Too much pounding pressure on this cartilage can cause developmental problems resulting in poor bone growth or abnormal joint surfaces leading to painful inflammation.
Large breed dogs like retrievers should only have moderate exercise until they are about 6-8 months old. This means no hikes longer than about five kilometers at a time and no runs longer than about 20 minutes at a time. Once they are ten to twelve months of age, most development is complete, and as long as you have conditioned them on a gradual basis, they should be able to handle as much as you can give them.
Before you get to the trail, remember that you need to transport your dog in a safe manner – safe for you and for him. Dogs should be secured inside a vehicle or in the back of a truck to protect it, and you, in the case of an accident. There are special seat belt harnesses available or regular harnesses can be tethered to a fixture in the vehicle. You should also ensure your dog is adequately vaccinated to protect him from potentially fatal viruses left behind by other dogs or even coyotes. He should also be treated for intestinal parasites and in some areas, heartworm protection is also important.
Once on the trail, it is important to be constantly aware of your dog’s whereabouts. This is made much easier if you have put yourself and your dog through a basic obedience course. Coming when called is crucial. You may want to use a long-line leash until he earns your confidence off the leash and even then you should train your dog to routinely check in with you. In order to protect the flora and fauna, you should encourage your dog to stay on the trail as much as possible.
Potential hazards for your trail-blazing dog include those you can see, like barbed wire fences and sharp rocks, to those you cannot, like Giardia parasites in pools and streams. It is a good idea to take filtered water along for you and your dog in order to avoid a serious GI upset later on. Carrying along a basic first-aid kit is also recommended. The most common trail injuries are torn nails and lacerated footpads. These are best treated with a pressure bandage until you can get to your veterinary clinic for definitive treatment. Remember not to put a bandage on too tightly or leave it on too long or you may cause more problems.
You must always keep in mind that not all hikers are dog lovers so good social behavior is needed to allow everyone to enjoy themselves. When approaching other people, call your dog over and restrain him until you have a chance to introduce yourself and your dog. Last, but not least, always pick up after your dog. Feces, apart from being unsightly, can spread viruses and parasites to other dogs and to people.