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Wild and Free: Conditioning your senior dog for the trail

Written by Serena Kirton @serenarileyadventures

Preparing a senior dog for the trail is a very simple task. It starts with nutrition, a visit to the vet, small walks, and the trail. The struggle for us humans is patience. Preparing for a hike takes time to ensure you are at your ideal physical ability to complete the hike. The same goes for our furry companions, no matter what their age is. Riley came to us a year ago at 14 years old, 44lbs, arthritis in one foreleg, and a developing kidney issue. Today he is a trim 23.5lbs, running daily, kidney disease managed and hiking a good 4 hours before he starts to tire and needs a rest.

Feed the Beast

Balanced nutrition is important for overall health. But for senior dogs, there are different dietary needs that should be explored. If you have had your dog on the same food since they were 3 years old and that dog is now 10, talk to your vet about senior foods. Chances are your dog needs a change for more than coat health.

What’s up Doc?

Our next stop was the vet. Making sure medical needs for your dog are managed decreases the risk of something major going wrong in the woods. This becomes especially important for senior dogs who often have at least one or two things going on. For Riley, it was his kidneys and arthritis. Riley was prescribed 4 things: a blood pressure med, a pain med, increase hydration, and exercise. Since these changes, Riley’s kidney function has improved drastically and he has had no issues with arthritis and increased activity!

Caring for those underlying health concerns means there is less risk of something preventable occurring on the trail. It's one less worry on our minds and one more thing we can plan for if we need to.

Get Moving and Get Out!

When conditioning your dog for the trail it is always important to start slow, start small, and start freely. So what does this mean?

Start Slow

You don’t want to head out on the trail just to fall over halfway up the mountain. The same goes for your dog! Riley couldn’t walk around the block a year ago. He would walk for 3 minutes or so and lay down completely exhausted. We would carry him home from there.

Start Small

If your dog has never hiked before, is severely overweight, or has weak legs (Riley was 2 out of 3 for these!), then you need to start small. Only start with what your dog can handle. For Riley, it was 5 minutes to walk around the block, and he got carried home. Then when he was able to do 5 minutes, we increased those walks to 10 minutes. And again, had to carry him home a few times. Gradual increases and eventually when he hit 30-minute walks, 4 times a day, we hit the trail!

Start Freely

Use the gradual increase in time to practice some walking meditation and really get in tune with your dog. Pay attention and re-learn your dog’s cues. Are they tiring? What does that look like for your dog? How does the leash feel in your hand? Check your pacing and your breathing, is your dog pacing with you? These cues you are learning now will help you later and may even prevent a serious injury on the trail. They also build connections, trust, and understanding between you and your dog.

Prepare your Gear

Your senior dog has needs! You need to be prepared to meet those needs on the trail. The major aspect you need to plan for is – Seniors get tired!

We use a backpack carrier for Riley and love it. A small carrier would work for most small dogs. Riley is a mid-size and weighs a pretty pound on my back. But if you are hiking with a husky or a shepherd, are you able to carry them out in an emergency? Have you planned for how? We have 8 essentials we take every trip for those “just in case” moments.

8 Essentials for hiking with senior/geriatric dogs:

1. Carrier or emergency transportation sling for bigger dogs
2. Water and snacks/treats
3. Water bowl
4. Sturdy lead
5. Harness
6. Emergency shelter or Bivy
7. First aid kit – including a tick key, Benadryl, and liquid band-aid
8. Vet Wrap

The Rewards

Diversify the terrain that you are challenging yourself and your dog with. By diversifying your walks to include small hills and different terrains, you are building strength in your dog’s legs and feet. This is super important when working with a dog that has arthritic joints! If the muscles ligaments and tendons around the joint are weak, your dog is at a high risk of injury both on and off the trail.

Now your pup is starting to really enjoy those loops around the lake, and you want to try something a little more technical. Find something that you know is within the limits of your furry buddy but poses a little more challenge than the lake loop. We like to do some short mid-incline hikes to gauge Riley’s legs from time to time. Our first hike with him was a 20-minute, 50 m elevation up to a waterfall and back down. We kept our first few hikes under an hour.

Rejuvenate

Senior dogs need a longer time to recuperate. Plan a rest day or two between all the big adventures – that doesn’t mean being lazy! For us, it means Riley doesn’t get pushed to do more than he wants. It means we go back to varying lengths of walks throughout the day and a few couch snuggles with a movie and popcorn.

Limits

At 15-years-old, Riley still loves the outdoors. Riley can’t do extensive hikes but can go 4 hours before needing to rest in the carrier. If you are prepared to adapt to your dog’s needs and abilities, then there is NO REASON to not get out and explore the world with your dog. Take a chance and explore a little. Let the paw prints lead you.

Want to know more about hiking with your dogs? Read our other blogs! Be sure to follow our Instagram for more daily adventures & Check out Serena & Riley on Instagram and their hiking endeavors!!

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