Your steadfast sidekick, hairy and four-legged, keeps pace with you. He gamely balances on fallen logs to cross ravines. He leaps from boulder to boulder with the grace of a ballerina. Your dog places his trust in you and crests ragged mountaintops by your side.
This fantasy can be your reality with a little hard work and patience. Dogs, just like us people, don’t get fit overnight. That burst of energy you see when you get home from a work day is just that: a burst of energy after a long day of laying around. It does not mean he has the endurance for a 10-mile hike.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. This post is purely for entertainment and educational value. While I don’t have a sidekick/hiking partner of the four-legged variety right now, I had one for 13 wonderful years. I’m a self-professed expert.
If you don’t take the time to prepare your dog for a daylong or multi-day hike, you both will be in for a world of pain and frustration. Your dog will tire quickly and need breaks more often. You might find yourself growing frustrated by the slow pace, and inability to reach the campsite or trailhead before dark.
Worse…if your guy pulls a muscle and can’t or won’t walk, what will you do?
It’s a smart pet owner who takes preventative steps.
Determine your dog’s fitness level
Your very first step should be to visit your dog’s vet. Your dog’s vet isn’t there just for emergencies and for annual physician checkups. Your veterinarian is a great resource for figuring out how to best get your dog ready for a nonstop daylong or multi-day hike.
Start by asking a few questions like:
- Is my dog overweight or underweight? What is his body score?
- How many calories should I be feeding my dog? How many calories should I feed my dog while on a hike?
- Are my dog’s feet in good shape? Do the nails need to be trimmed?
- Does my dog have hip or elbow dysplasia?
- Does he have any respiratory or other physical limitations I should be aware of?
- What’s the best way I can prepare my dog for a ##-mile hike?
Note: Other health concerns will be addressed in a future article
Your dog’s weight isn’t the only criteria for determining his fitness level. A male golden retriever, for example, can be 75 lbs, within the acceptable range for the breed standards, but if he’s only 20 inches tall he very likely is overweight. Golden Retrievers males typically are 23-24 inches tall.
Not to mention, dogs can be “skinny-fat” just like people, a term that suggests a person is thin but out of shape.
Being biased, loving owners, it’s hard for us to gauge our pets’ weight impartially. That’s why it’s important for the pet owners to get objective assessments from professionals. Professionals as in vets and vet techs. Not your neighbor. Not your dog groomer. Not that random Joe Schmuck who stopped you on a walk one day.
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 56% of dogs in America are overweight. Many of us pet owners have gotten so used to seeing overweight dogs that it’s become normal to us.
An added benefit of getting your dog to his ideal weight is it’ll help minimize his long-term risk of arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems later down the road. They also tend to be more longer-lived. A study showed that a dog at his ideal weight lived two years longer than a moderately overweight dog.
A good rule of thumb, for us layman dog owners, is you should be able to feel your dog’s ribcage bones and his spine underneath a thin layer of fat. If you can’t…he’s probably overweight.
Nutrition – aka Food
We hikers are notorious for being health nuts, or at least somewhat conscious about the food we put into our bodies. But when it comes to our dogs, their nutrition and calories are often not a critical factor.
It should be.
It might surprise you to learn that there are dog food brands that are tantamount to junk food, with very little nutritional value to them.
15 years ago, healthy dog food options were limited. The pet store chains stocked Purina, Pedigree, Alpo, and the like. I remember having to go to a livestock feed store 20 minutes out of town to find Fromm, Blue Buffalo, Canidae, Solid Gold, and a number of other higher-quality food brands.
Fortunately, because of the booming pet industry, the pet chain stores have wised up and now stock several of these higher-quality dog food brands. It’s also now easier (but not by much) to find unusual proteins like rabbit and veal for dogs with protein allergies.
This site, Dog Food Advisor, is a great resource for figuring out which brand your dog will do well on.
In general, look for food with a lower percentage of carbohydrates. Carbs aren’t a necessary part of a healthy dog’s diet. The reason so many dog food companies include it is because it’s cheap, durable, and plentiful. (source)
While these higher-quality food carry a bigger price tag, an upside is they’re more nutritionally dense. With a lower percentage of carbs, and higher percentage of protein and fat, your dog won’t need to eat as much volume as he might on a lower-quality brand. It balances out.
As an example, when my dog was young and I didn’t know any better, he ate a dog food brand that you could find at grocery stores and pet stores. (I hesitate to name the brand because I don’t want to be seen as vilifying it). Furball consumed 6 to 8 cups of this kibble every day, and he’d still be hungry. We easily went through 40 lbs bag in under a month. His BMs were an alarming shade of orange from the dye the manufacturer put in their food, and atrociously big, comparable with a small pony’s BMs.
After talking with savvy dog owners, I switched brands to a better quality food. The bag cost nearly twice as much, but because the nutritional content was much better, my dog ate less of it in a day. He wasn’t as hungry. He had more energy, despite eating only four cups a day. His coat got ridiculously shiny. And his BMs were literally more manageable — I could now bag it with one hand. Bonuses upon bonuses!
When communicating with your vet…
Absolutely ask your vet about food and calorie intake. However, keep in mind that at this time, the topic of pet nutrition at several veterinarian schools is still an elective. Many vets get their information from the very same dog “junk food” brands that you should avoid.
Some of the newer, more progressive clinics are up to speed on the modern thinking when it comes to pet food. But not all. So…take what your vet recommends with a grain of salt when it comes to the dog food brand.
Do your own research. You should likewise be careful about where and how you conduct your research. There is just as much bad information floating around on internet, particularly in the holistic, new-agey arena.
DO listen to what he has to say about calorie intake, exercise, and if applicable, food allergies.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Trail Dog: Fitness!
Did you miss the first Trail Dog article? Fear not, here’s the link: Transform Your Dog into a Trail Dog