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Desert Hiking for Dogs

While the rest of the country is still in the grips of winter, southern Arizona is quickly rushing through spring in a hurry to get to summer. This is the perfect time of year to be out hiking our many trails. In fact, our county’s mountain rescue team has been running nonstop for a week, rescuing people who, in their haste to enjoy the outdoors, end up victims of the outdoors, with injuries and illnesses born of too much enthusiasm and too little planning. So in the spirit of keeping all hikers safe, here are a few tips to keep your dog safe on the trails this spring.

Tip 1. Leash

You need to keep your dog on a leash at all times when on the trail. This not only protects your dog, but it protects other hikers, cyclists, and horsemen on the trail. Do not count on your dog being friendly and therefore being fine to greet every other creature on the trail. Many dogs are not friendly (which is why their owners have them on a leash). Many snakes are not friendly. And no cactus is friendly. Keeping your dog on a leash ensures that you’re aware of everything your dog may encounter.

Tip 2. Identification

Microchips are fantastic and I can’t sing their praises enough. But a good old fashioned ID tag will get your dog home much faster in case you happen to lose him. (This is much less likely to happen if you follow Tip 1.) People can see and read a tag and therefore call you immediately. Bonus: multiple tags rattle together and make noise. While this is super annoying at three o’clock in the morning at home, that noise may help you track down Fido in the desert, and may make wildlife nervous enough to stay away from Fido.

Tip 3. Water

In the desert, this is a life and death matter, for people and pets. Make sure you bring enough water for all of you. The recommended rate of water consumption for people in the desert is 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of activity. Plan on the same rate for your dog. Dogs may not actually consume that rate, but you need to take into account how much they’ll spill in the drinking process. Keep in mind too, that dogs don’t sweat, so it’s not difficult for them to overheat. Keeping their heads, ears, and bellies wet can help bring their temperatures down if they get too hot.

Tip 4. First aid

This can be region specific, so check with your local experts for the nuances of the area. Southern Arizona is a land of cactus and sharp rocks.

  • Make sure your first aid kit includes tweezers or hemostats to pluck out large cactus spines if your dog gets stuck. Duct tape or medical tape works well to remove the pesky tiny spines that no one can see but that are nevertheless painful.

    My dog's feet protected by booties, held in place with duct tape.

  • Duct tape is also convenient for making temporary booties for your dog. A nonstick bandage placed against your dog’s pad, rolled bandage material covering that and wrapping from the toes up the leg, and duct tape to finish tracing the rolled bandage can make a torn, burnt, or bruised pad comfortable long enough to get off the trail and to the vet. (Make sure that the duct tape has minimal contact with the fur to minimize the pain of removing the tape later. Only the top ¼ inch of the duct tape should actually stick to your dog’s leg.) Make sure to remove any temporary bandage booties as soon as you’re back at the trail head.

Tip 5. Common Sense

Use your head. Your dog’s is in overload so he won’t tell you when he’s had enough.

  • If you’re on the first hike of the season, remember that your dog has been laying around the house all winter. He’s not in shape yet. Pick a trail that’s appropriate for your fitness level and his. Gradually work up to longer or more difficult hikes as you both progress.
  • Know where you are. Take note of the trail name or number on which you’re hiking, and know approximately how far you’ve traveled or for how long you’ve been traveling.

Tip 6. Call 911

If you find yourself or your dog in an emergency situation that you can’t resolve, call 911. Emergencies include severe injuries or heat- or cold-related illnesses. They do not include you being tired and not wanting to hike anymore. If you can tell the 911 dispatchers where you are, then they can get the appropriate resources to you to help.

For more tips on staying safe in the great outdoors, see the Twelve Essentials at mountainrescue.org/education

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