Hiking with a puppy?
June 28, 2016 1:22 PM   Subscribe

How old should a dog be before being taken on long hikes?

I have a five month old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. This is a medium sized breed which look similar to golden retrievers, but is smaller, at around the same size as border collies.

I am an avid hiker and is waiting with great anticipation for my pup to grow up so I can take her to the mountains. I have read on many internet sources that it is best for the dog's health to wait until it is nearing adult size before taking it on strenuous hikes. The most commonly cited ages are 10 months to a year. Due to this information, I have only taken my pup on very short hikes, around an hour in length.

Recently I read the story of Christian Thomas, who at age 5 set the record for the youngest person to ever hike then entire 2200 mile Appalachian Trail (accompanied by adults). After reading this, I realized that plenty of parents take their children on hikes, and I have never heard of a case of someone growing up with crippling joint problems due to over activity in childhood.

I looked online for research on wolf behaviour and discovered that packs are known to travel long distances each day. The US Fish and Wildlife Service website states that wolves often travel as much as 30 miles a day. This study of wolves in the Canadian arctic reports that a pack, pups in tow, averaged a daily movement of 12km through a seven month study period, including consecutive days of 41km, and a record of 76km in one day. It also reported that average travel distances during the 24 hour darkness of the Arctic winter was not significantly different from those of the daylight months.

This information has me wondering whether dogs are a lot tougher than people give them credit for. My question is as follows:

Is there any credible evidence, other than in the form of hearsay, anecdotes, or personal advice, that premature exercise of young dogs can lead to developmental issues such as hip dysplasia?
posted by BeaverTerror to Pets & Animals (11 answers total)
A wolf is not a domestic dog. Wild wolves do that much walking because they have to in order not to get eaten. As such, they build up a tolerance for long distances. Very few domestic dogs are not going to get in 12km (about 7 miles) per day. Without that tolerance, a long hike is going to be much more strenuous and difficult.

Additionally, a human child is also not a domestic dog. And, like the wolves, I'm sure Christian Thomas built up a tolerance for walking long distances regularly before hiking the Appalachian Trail. Most children that I know who can on regular hikes with their parents are not hiking for long distances on a regular basis.

You may also be overestimating your dog's ability to even do the kind of activity you're looking for her to do at this age. I have an Australian Shepherd mix who is extremely active and is about a year and a half old. I took her on a bike ride on a flat trail for the first time recently, and she only lasted for about a mile and a half running next to my bike. We had to take a long break and then walked back part of the way. She was exhausted the rest of the day.

So I think the ultimate issue here isn't necessarily the long-term effects strenuous hiking like this can have on your dog, but the short-term effects. If you push your dog too hard, too fast, you could very likely cause a medical emergency.

I know you would hate to cause your pup harm, so I'd recommend holding off on anything more strenuous until your girl is closer to a year old. Keep taking her on shorter, less difficult hikes so she can get used to the routine and build up muscle for that sort of thing, but don't push her too hard. Remember she's still a baby!
posted by anotheraccount at 1:34 PM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here are some facts on puppy physiology, risks and benefits of various types of exercise, and exercise recommendations for various ages.
posted by HotToddy at 1:42 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Once your girl (WHERE ARE THE PICTURES) is old enough, make sure you build up her stamina, too. I mean, just like a person has to get conditioned to do long-distance anything, so will your dog. Keep a close eye on her progress. She'll get there pretty fast, but in the meantime, be patient!
posted by clone boulevard at 1:48 PM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have no dog forecasting to offer you, only a bit of practical advice: puppies have energy, but they don't always have endurance, especially when hot. Four-legged animals aren't built like humans, and walking upright gave us a huuuge endurance advantage. We can hunt much faster animals by outlasting them in the chase, rather than outrunning them in the sprint. The advice is this: Don't hike your dog into any place you're unwilling or unable to carry her out of. As she grows, her endurance will grow, but it's not infinite, and she won't push past her exhaustion unless survival is at stake, so not for your hiking timetable.

pix plz
posted by Sunburnt at 2:18 PM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Photo link!

These are all from when she was much younger.
posted by BeaverTerror at 2:28 PM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

That's one cute pup!

Here is an article discussing research on how exercise affects incidence of hip dysplasia. (Summary: before 3 months, free exercise - which did not include strenuous hikes - was helpful rather than harmful. Climbing stairs seemed harmful. After 3 months, exercise didn't seem to have an effect.)

And here is an article by a vet who says there is very little research backing up most exercise safety recommendations. She refers to a couple of studies showing that some types of exercise (playing with other dogs, stick and ball chasing) were risk factors for certain conditions.

There's a lot of middle ground between a one-hour walk and what I would consider a strenuous hike. If your pup still seems to have plenty of energy left after an hour, I'd try gradually lengthening your hikes. I know when the border collie I used to own was 5 months old an hour of walking (well, me walking while she trotted and ran and covered 3 times the distance I did) was nothing to her. Your pup might not have quite that much energy, but I'd be surprised if she couldn't handle more than an hour with no problem.
posted by Redstart at 2:47 PM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

The guidelines linked by HotToddy above don't seem to be particularly science-derived and, for active high-energy breeds, seem almost ludicrously conservative (swim with a life jacket always as an adult dog? Only 20 min. play time with adult dogs for puppies 6-12 months? Sustained and continuous walking in the 20-30 minute range for dogs 12-18 months?). I don't know anything about your dog's breed or current level of activity, so can't state whether they are reasonable in your particular situation, however.

Basically, I'm going to second Sunburnt above. We talked to our vet about our now-65 lb mutt (a mix of breeds not particularly prone to hip dysplasia). We live a very active lifestyle and wanted him to participate. After about 6 months she said, based on his personal history and energy level and muscle tone, that if he was game for something and didn't seem tired, it was probably okay and to let him guide us and build up to whatever he could do as long as we were prepared to carry him out of someplace if we misgauged and he bonked. He has no ability to pace himeself so we just took him for hikes/jogs of increasing length/difficulty (almost entirely off-leash and not on pavement, and we don't live someplace where heat is usually a concern) and as he seemed fine with whatever by the time he was about 8 months we took him on whatever we were doing including multi-day backpacking adventures.

We waited until he was a full year to do skijoring, since pulling someone behind you is very different than hauling your own body around, and we didn't bike with him until he was over a year either since that involves full-on sprinting.

Anyway, just talk to your vet, who is familiar with your dog, about what you want to do and ask if it seems reasonable for your dog. If your dog doesn't seem to be having fun, stop, and build up gradually.
posted by charmedimsure at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

My dog is a mutt and not a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, but people ask me all the time if he is and he seems to have a lot of the same physical and personality traits of one, so maybe this will be helpful: I took my dog on some hikes when he was a puppy, but he seriously could not deal with being on-leash for more than a couple of miles, and I wasn't comfortable having him off-leash in the woods at that point (his recall was not great).

I think the best thing for these kinds of dogs is short bursts of high-energy behavior (running, swimming) with short periods of rest. So I would be a little worried that he, especially as a puppy, would not do great with a longer period of relatively steady exercise like walking on-leash. And I would only let a puppy hike off-leash if you felt rock-solid with his recall - and other behaviors like jumping if you are talking trails with a lot of other people and dogs.
posted by lunasol at 3:15 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wow, that's a cutie. I agree with others that the times where I realized I'd really over-exercised a young dog (a Brittany with So Much energy) involved running her alongside my bike.

Along with building up endurance, another thing to watch for with mountain hikes and dogs is to be sure their pads remain in good shape. Dogs will try to keep going sometimes to their own detriment, so checking with your vet first and working your way up to bigger hikes all seem like good steps to take.
posted by ldthomps at 3:18 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, once you do start hiking with your dog, make sure that you have emergency supplies for him; this is something that people I am hiking with sometimes forget for their dogs and it makes me a little crazy. If we're going out for longer than a couple hours we always bring in our packs (or put in his pack if he's carrying one):

A set of booties (for snow and ice in the winter, or pad injury in summer).

A can of wet dog food for the peak- he's working hard, too! We have never had to break this out to resurrect our dog mid-trail but I have used it for other dogs I hike with on occasion when they went crumpledog.

Lots of extra water (depending on what is reliably available along the trail, or not).

A leash even if we're hiking off-leash

A bell for his collar to alert wildlife and other hikers that he's not a wild animal crashing through the brush

Poop bags

Other considerations: for leashed hikes, I find it is much, much more convenient to have a harness/waistband system on the human so the human can have both hands free.
posted by charmedimsure at 3:43 PM on June 28, 2016

I would wait until about a year. I'm not so concerned about the physical aspect, but the behavioral side of things. You want to have confidence that you can control your dog out on the trail, because once you're out there she can find a million ways to get in trouble and you're her only source of help. A lot of people think I'm wrong for saying this, but don't let your dog off leash. My opinion is colored by my wife's experiences working in a vet clinic and unleashed dogs have been known to run off, pick a fight with wildlife, get bitten by snakes, start chasing a squirrel and end up running over a cliff, etc. Also, if you haven't done any training with her, now would be a good time to look into that. I speak from experience when I say it could save her life. Having a trail dog that's also trained is an awesome thing.
posted by azpenguin at 9:58 PM on June 28, 2016

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