Most often, choosing the best trail for your adventure comes down to knowing your dog well. Here are a few key considerations that can help you choose an adventure that will make your experience with your dog a happy and more enjoyable one.
1. Know Your Dog's Fitness Level
Trying to decide between a long or a short hike? A steep or a flat one? Think about how good of shape your pup is in. Your dog can't tell you when they're tired, yet most dogs will try to keep up with their owner even when they're getting tired!
Keep in mind that when you hit the gym, your dog isn't working out! You might be ready for a big day while Fido is just finally stretching his legs. Sprocket has become choosy about where he likes to run as he's gotten older; he doesn't seem to enjoy a leashed run through town anymore and would rather stick to romping around the trails. Since I want him to be in shape to join me on long hikes, I try to choose a couple of "dog approved" runs each week.
2. Keep Wildlife in Mind
Respecting wildlife is one of the principles of Leave No Trace, so this is not optional! While your dog might love chasing squirrels and birds, it's important to try to disrupt animals as little as possible. If your dog has a tendency to chase animals, leash them up! It can be stressful to fear your dog might take off after animals, and it's dangerous for both them and wildlife.
3. Research the Terrain
Trails aren't all created equal. They vary in trail surface, exposure, steepness, and amount of sun. When it comes to choosing a trail, keep in mind your pup's paws; many dogs spend a large amount of their time on your lawn or paved surfaces. Here in Colorado many of our alpine trails cross rocky talus slopes, and pups can end up with pretty tender and sometimes bleeding paws.
You know your dog best and can judge what level of exposure will work for the two of you. Does your dog seem oblivious to drop offs? Maybe choose a trail that passes through the woods instead of along a cliff. Sprocket is almost always pretty sure to stick to the trail, so I don't worry unless there's a steep snow slope. He doesn't seem to be able to resist rolling down them!
4. Bring a Poop Bag for Your Poop Bag
Do NOT leave your pup's poop bag on the side of the trail. DO NOT. It's right up there with not cleaning up after your dog at all and leaves others finishing what is certainly your job.
It's so easy to think, "I'll pick it up on the way out" because carrying a smelly bag for the rest of your hike is gross, but so often the bags don't get picked up. I have a duct tape covered Ziplock that lives in my pack so that when Sprocket poops, the tied up bag of yuck can go in there and be very secured for the remainder of my adventure. Trailheads frequently lack garbage pick up, so don't just leave your bag next to the trail register either; make sure it gets to an appropriate disposal site!
5. Watch the Weather
Sprocket doesn't do well when the mercury climbs over 75 degrees, so we do most of our hiking early and at high elevation whenever possible. Bonus: morning hiking helps us avoid afternoon thunderstorms that can be particularly dangerous in the high country.
Some dogs might struggle more with cold or dislike rain. Sprocket actually encourages me to get out in the rain; he doesn't seem to mind as long as we're exploring. Don't be afraid to turn back early if it appears that your dog is struggling with the heat; I once had to help Sprocket limp his way off a mountain when the temperatures got to be too much for him. I felt awful and he was clearly hurting for days; I definitely don't want to ever repeat that experience.
Get outside and enjoy nature with your pup. You'll both be thankful you did!