The two things that are most important to your dog's health on the trail is knowing the signs of dehydration and drinking enough water.
Water is More Important than Food
About 80% of a dog's body is made of water. That means that a dog can suffer from dehydration just like people can. Staying hydrated is important for your dog year-round because, if they don't, they can have trouble regulating their body temperature, become lethargic, or collapse.
Your Dog Might Not be Drinking Enough
You might be surprised to learn that, while some dogs instinctively know to drink just the right amount of water for their needs, some dogs don't drink enough. This can happen for several reasons. One is that they aren't given frequent opportunities and only drink a small amount when they are. Your dog also might not drink water because they don't like to when they are working hard or in distracting surroundings.
Generally, a dog needs to drink between 8.5 to 17 ounces of water per 10 pounds of body weight daily. That means that a 50 lb dog needs almost a half gallon of water a day. A dog needs even more water if they are exercising.
Leading Your Dog to Water
There are two ways that you can ensure that your dog has enough opportunities to drink - carry water or make sure you give them ample opportunity to drink from lakes or streams.
It's recommended that you carry clean water for your pup. If your dog doesn't seem interested in drinking the water, you can make it more enticing by adding a dog-specific sports drink like K9 GoDog, Rehydrate, or no-sodium chicken broth to it. In the case where it is not practical to carry the extra volume and weight of water, drinking from lakes and streams is better than nothing though.
Letting your dog drink from lakes or streams is not ideal. First, you can't adequately monitor the amount of water your dog is drinking. Second, dogs can get giardia.
While it's true that some dogs will show little or no symptoms of giardia and can flush it from their system, other dogs can become chronic carriers. This chronic infection can lead to damage of the intestine, poor digestion, and malnutrition. Also, because giardia is zoonotic, it can pass from your dog to human family members and other household pets.
Signs Your Dog is Not Drinking Enough
Dehydration can range from mild to severe and often the signs are not always obvious.
In the beginning stages of dehydration your dog will become visibly tired. Their pace may slow, they may be excessively panting, or their attitude might change (ex. become more apprehensive or "grumpy"). Their gums may also be dry and sticky instead of wet and slick or their eyes can appear sunken.
When your dog has moved to a more advanced state of dehydration, they will show the signs above but their skin will also lose elasticity and they will have reduced capillary refill capabilities.
You can test skin elasticity on the trail by gently lifting the skin on the back of your dog's neck or between the shoulder blades. In most dogs, it should immediately return to a normal position. You can test capillary refill if your dog has pink gums by pressing your finger on the gums for a few seconds, releasing, and watching how long it takes for them to turn pink again. When your dog is dehydrated, the return time will be slower than normal. Try both of these at home a few times before hitting the trail so you know what your dog's normal is.
Mild dehydration can usually be treated on the trail by moving your dog to a cool spot, giving them water, and resting. However, more severe dehydration can require a veterinary visit.
If you notice that your dog is weak in the hind end or wobbly and unsteady on their feet, they have progressed to the advanced level of dehydration.
Knowing the signs of dehydration, and making sure your dog drinks enough water, can help make sure you enjoy many more years of outdoor adventure with your pooch.