Hiking With Your Puppy: Why You Should Wait

By Mia Svenson, Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador

So you just got a new puppy! You’re probably stoked to get your new little hiking buddy out on the trail, but unfortunately introducing your baby pooch to repetitive motion can cause lasting damage to your puppy’s muscular and skeletal systems. It might be awful to leave your little one at home when you go out on adventures, but by doing so you’re saving your puppy from lasting injuries that can lead to hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis later in life.

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You know how puppies grow SO fast in their first year that you can practically see them growing right before their eyes? To accommodate this extreme growth, puppy bones are cartilaginous and soft. Repetitive motion can cause damage to the epiphyseal, or growth plate. Unfortunately, when a growth plate or still ossifying (hardening into bone) area is damaged, growth in that area will slow or cease. This often only occurs on one side of the bone, and the result is that one side of the bone will continue to grow, while the other will remain stunted. This abnormal, asymmetrical growth can lead to much bigger problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, abnormal joint movement, and in severe cases can actually cause your dog to lose function and movement in the area affected. 

Next time you’re out hiking, find a twig or stick that’s still a bit green and soft. Bend it repetitively and you’ll start to notice that small splinters being to form, and eventually the twig will fray and remain bent. That’s how you should think of your puppy’s still hardening bones. 

Now think about how much pressure, bending and splintering would be caused if you used that same stick on even a four-mile hike.

Dogs shouldn’t start long distance, repetitive motion routines until their epiphyseal plates have fully ossified. If you’re wondering what the heck that means, rest assured that you are not the only one! The epiphyseal plate of a bone is the growth plate. It begins as fibrous cartilage, and eventually ossifies, or hardens into bone. In teacup breeds this can occur as early as four months of age, but unfortunately, larger more athletic breeds mature physically at a much slower rate, and usually aren’t finished growing until they’re eighteen months old. 

I know, I know, what on earth are you supposed to do to tire your puppy out if you can’t take them hiking?! Think about how much exercise your puppy would naturally experience – you’ll notice while watching your puppy romp around the house that they usually have short periods of intense activity (like zooming about in the yard or playing an intense game of tug with you), and then fall asleep for hours at a time. Playing with your puppy in the house or yard is a great option, and you can even get a jump start on trail training by using short obedience walks in a safe environment, like your neighborhood or a local park. 

My vet recommended the Five Minute Rule. The Five Minute Rule is that puppies and dogs who haven’t reached maturity should have no more than five minutes of led activity and exercise for every month of his or her age. That means that a four-month old puppy should have no more than twenty minutes of organized activity per day. An organized activity or led exercise is an exercise that you, their owner, control. This can be anything from a short walk to a play time session with various toys. This time period is a great opportunity to teach your puppy some trail commands, so they’re ready to behave when it’s safe for them to take to the trails! 

Please note that if you're concerned or unsure of whether or not your puppy's skeletal system is developed enough for sustained, long distance activity like hiking, you should consult your vet directly. 

These are the trail commands that I taught my dog. Keep in mind that these are commands that are trail specific – he also knows basic commands like sit, stay and lie down.  

“Too Far!” – for off leash scenarios when your dog is more than 15-20 feet away from you. This is the length of a long lead, and it’s important that your dog understand this command. This ensures that your dog won’t leave your sight, get lost or enter a part of the trail that may be dangerous without your knowledge. 

“To me” – your dog should know when it needs to be right by your side. 

“Behind” or “Back” – your dog should know when it needs to be directly behind you, not in front of or next to you. This is a great command for narrow trails or treacherous downhill sections; you don’t want to risk being tugged off balance by your dog while he or she is on a leash in front of you. 

“Back off” – your dog should know when it’s too close to the hiker in front of you when you’re hiking in a group. 

“Eyes on me” – your dog should understand when it should focus on you – this has been a lifesaver for me and my dog when we see unexpected wildlife or other dogs on the trail. When my dog has his eyes on me and doesn’t break focus, I know he’s not even looking at something that could scare him or spark his natural prey instinct to chase. I’ve also noticed that when another dog passes and my dog is focused on me, the other dog is less likely to approach him, which is an excellent safety measure as I don’t have to worry about a potential argument between the two dogs. 

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“Leave it!” – This is arguably the most important command, and it literally saved my dogs life. Your dog needs to know when to immediately back off and leave something alone. It can be something like poison oak or poison ivy, but in my dogs’ case, it was a rattlesnake. My dog, Wes, was walking behind me on a downhill segment of a hike when I heard the unmistakable noise of a rattlesnake. I had been looking down at my feet and not paying attention to the sides of the trail, so I’d walked right by a rattlesnake coiled up, tucked beneath a log without even noticing it. Wes, on the other hand, was very interested in this potential new friend! I turned around just in time to see Wes standing less than one foot away from the snake, who was already reared back into striking position. You know when you’re having a nightmare and there’s something chasing you and you feel like you’re running in slow motion? That’s how I felt. I was moving too slowly and frozen at the same time. I shouted “LEAVE IT!” and thankfully, Wes immediately stepped back from the snake and out of striking distance. Since the rattlesnake vaccine is ineffective at best, and rattlesnake training can be expensive or difficult to find depending on your area, I highly recommend this command to anyone who lives in an area with poisonous snakes.

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Mia is the ambassador for our Los Angeles, California chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Los Angeles chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.