Getting Outside with Our Four-Legged Friends

Getting outside with our pets can be a necessary reminder of all of the beauty the world has to offer

August 19, 2020 (published)
Amanda and Daisy hang out in a hammock. Photo courtesy of Amanda McWreath

“Hiking is not escapism; it’s realism. The people who chose to spend time outdoors are not running away from anything; we are returning to where we belong.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis (National Geographic Adventurer of the Year)

This March, when COVID seemed to stop the world from spinning and left us at home with a little too much time on our hands, I began to journal. My goal was to write one positive thing about the pandemic for each day that it lasted. Looking back at my journal, which only lasted for the first 57 days of COVID, the one reoccurring theme was nature: the beauty of a simple walk around the neighborhood with my dog; the rejuvenating feeling of spending a few days in the mountains; and nature’s incredible ability to make things seem “normal” even in the middle of a pandemic. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from this pandemic thus far is to appreciate the gift that is the great outdoors and how it can be made even better by sharing it with the ones we love (at a safe distance, of course). And who better to share it with than our four-legged friends?

Whether we are heading into the mountains to go backpacking or taking our dog for a morning stroll around the neighborhood, being outside improves our mental, emotional, and physical health and that of the animals that we love. Getting outside with our pets can become a favorite part of our daily routine and a necessary reminder of all of the beauty that the world has to offer, especially when things seem to be at their worst. There are just a few important things to remember before we head out.

Practice makes perfect. The key to success, whether you are on the sidewalk or on the trails, is to start by familiarizing your dog with what they will encounter along the way and teaching them how to respond appropriately. Some of the most essential skills to work on before taking on the outside world are things like socialization with other dogs and humans, desensitization to common distractions, walking on a leash, and an understanding of basic commands (sit, stay, come). These can all be practiced in the comfort of home or in the backyard until we work our way up to the added challenges that neighborhoods, parks, and trails can present. As our comfort and sense of adventure with our companions continues to grow, we can work to build up their endurance for more challenging walks, hikes, or runs and can begin to expose them to some of the skills more specific to hiking and backpacking, such as carrying their own pack, sleeping in a tent, and maneuvering around campfires. Practicing skills like these also helps us learn about our dog’s desires and limitations, which are equally as important as our own when it comes to setting our goals for outdoor activities together. While trying new things, we never want to force our dogs to do something that they are clearly not comfortable with, especially if they have medical or behavioral conditions that could contribute to that discomfort. Some dogs are born to explore and spend hours on the trail, whereas some prefer the simplicity of a short trip to the neighborhood dog park for some fetch. It is important that we recognize and consider what our dogs want before we head outside together to make sure that we both get the most out of our outdoor experiences.

I have always hated the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It is amazing what dogs are able to learn and adjust to with a little practice and support, no matter how old they may be or how their past experiences may have shaped their behavior. I have experienced firsthand how quickly an old dog can learn to love something new when I decided to try hammocking with my dog, Daisy. I brought her with me into the mountains to do some fieldwork for my master’s thesis research and decided to only bring my hammock for us to sleep in, assuming she would just climb in and sleep the night away after a long day of hiking. I quickly realized that was not the case. After two sleepless nights of lifting her 60-pound body to and from the ground for potty breaks and swinging back and forth as she tossed and turned trying to creep into my sleeping bag, I knew something had to change. Rather than giving up though, we decided to practice hanging out in the hammock in the backyard for short periods of time until we built up her tolerance to an entire night, and she absolutely loved it. Since then, Daisy and I have spent many wonderful nights sleeping in our hammock under the stars, and she now has her own sleeping bag so she doesn’t have to steal mine.

Respect: give it to get it. As with everything else in life, there is a certain etiquette that comes with participating in outdoor activities with your dog. In the neighborhood, most of these unwritten rules are based on common courtesies like picking up after our dogs, not allowing them to bark at strangers or other dogs, and keeping them under control on a leash. These rules still apply on the trail, but there are some additional ones as well. The biggest difference between sidewalk and trail etiquette is the added component of respect for nature that comes with leaving the concrete behind. When in the wilderness, we must consider not only the safety of ourselves, our pets, and others on the trail, but also the health of the wildlife and vegetation all around us. As dog owners, we are responsible for keeping our dogs under control to protect the local plants and animals and our own pets, as some plants and wild animals can be extremely dangerous. Even if our dogs have great recall and a good understanding of commands, keeping them on leash in protected wildlife areas is a must.

“Take only pictures, leave only foot(paw)prints.” This little saying does a great job of summarizing the leave-no-trace component of trail etiquette. It means no one should be able to tell that we were ever on the trail once we are gone (aside from a few pawprints in the mud, of course). It’s a commitment to leave nature exactly the way you found it, or possibly even better if you have the opportunity to clean up after some less considerate hikers. While leave-no-trace is something we emphasize, it is important to remember that taking pictures is included in that quotation for a reason. Nature is meant to be experienced and enjoyed, we just have to make sure that we are doing so in a way that will allow others to enjoy it as well for many years to come.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Preparation is potentially the most important thing to remember when it comes to enjoying the outdoors with our dogs, especially when it comes to hiking and backpacking. Being truly prepared for an adventure with a dog means researching the places we plan to visit, mapping out the routes that we are going to take, and packing enough food, water, and medical supplies to get through any unexpected experiences we may face. Things like temperature, weather, shade, water quality and availability, daylight, insects, and terrain should all be considered before we even begin to map out our journey, which can be a bit challenging.

When it comes to planning a hike, smartphone apps can make your life a lot easier. My personal favorite is AllTrails, which has an enormous database of trails throughout the entire world, ranging from 100+ mile backpacking routes to casual trails in your local arboretum. It includes downloadable maps, trail reviews, trail photos, and basic information about dog-friendliness, weather updates, trail usage, and accessibility. I can’t remember the last time I hiked a trail without first consulting AllTrails, and it has definitely saved me from making some major mistakes when my dog tags along for an adventure. Plus, it has a great feature that allows me to keep track of all of the trails that I have done and hope to do with my best friend!

Dogs, just like humans, are diverse in their wants and desires; some dogs long to return to the wild and explore the great unknown, whereas some simply want to catch a whiff of the pretty neighbor dog or pee on some mailboxes. No matter where you and your pooch may fall along this spectrum, getting outside is the first step to unlocking a lifetime of happiness with your best friend. The world is waiting!

1 Comment

Cynthia J Fordyce
January 18, 2021

I agree - this horrible pandemic has reconnected me and my dog with nature - very rewarding!

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