Author: Katie Pollak, Trailblazer
I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve had someone ask me on the trail how my little dog could possibly do this trail. Little do they know, she could out-hike me and my larger dog easily. It is much more about the spirit of the dog than the size. And if you’ve ever met a small dog - you know their spirits are as big as they come!
When I adopted Quinci, I knew from the get go that she would be an amazing adventurer. She was spunky, athletic and full of energy. But just because a dog has the personality, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to climb a mountain the day you bring them home. Believe me - Quinci was NOT as ripped as she is in the photo above when I first brought her home! My velociraptor worked hard to turn herself into a modern day dinosaur. With little dogs it is imperative that you work to build up their endurance, strength and confidence.
How do you do that, exactly? Begin slow and easy. Start with walks - either around your neighborhood, at a park or on a very easy trail. Keep them short and fun, rewarding your dog with treats or praise for showing confidence, behaving appropriately or anything else you would like to reward. Remember, what you reward is what you’re telling them you want to see more of! Quinci was afraid of her own shadow, when I first adopted her. But through months and months of positive reinforcement, she overcame many of her fears. We do still come across things that startle her, but we handle them as we come. I do my best to always empower her to overcome her fears and work through them at her own pace.
Once you can see your dog beginning to gain stamina and confidence, feel free to gradually increase your mileage. Never push your dog to do more than they’re ready for. Let them take plenty of breaks - it’s wonderful to have a dog that knows how to self regulate. I always encourage this, by listening to my dogs needs - when they start heading for shade, water, or attempting to lay down or dig a hole (in an attempt to find cooler ground to lay down) I always allow them to take the time they need to recover.
Now that your pint-sized pup has gained some endurance, you can really start to build up that strength. There are many ways this can be done. You can start by asking your dog to jump on and off of objects - anything from your couch, a bench, playground equipment or boulders. Never force your dog, and always reward when they are willing to jump on an object when asked or when they offer the behavior themselves. The ability and eagerness to jump on and over a variety of objects is helpful for so many reasons. When hiking, it is common to come across boulders, creeks, logs and more - that dogs need to be able to handle. This may sound like childs play for a medium to extra large sized dog - but for those mini hikers, a boulder can look like a mountain to climb. Ingraining that confidence in them, early, will make their adventures easier and more enjoyable for you and them.
A mini hiker with the set of skills necessary for truly being an adventure dog is a magical thing. I can’t get enough of watching Quinci blaze the trails with nothing but confidence and thrill. She can conquer most any obstacle, in her way.
Beyond building endurance, strength and confidence - the most valuable skill you can teach your dog is a recall. This goes for any sized dog that spends time off leash. As for dogs that are sub 10lbs, the recall is VITAL. There are many predators on the trail, and a tiny dog can be easy pickens. It is important to work on this recall from the first day you bring your dog home.
A few tips for building a reliable recall: In the beginning, reward every time they look at you when you say their name (indoors and outdoors). Build up to walking on leash and rewarding when the dog looks and walks toward you when his name is called or is given a recall cue. Work to build up distance, and slowly work in some distractions. As time goes on begin to reward intermittently. Even if you feel your dog has a rock solid recall - don’t forget to continue to reinforce it from time to time. It is easy to take it for granted, but don’t! It could save your dogs life.
Now let’s get into some of my go-to gear options for the tinies. I know first hand how difficult it is to find reliable gear for dogs under 10lbs.
Harness/Leashes: Ruffwear, hands down! The webmaster harness has been a lifesaver. Despite Quinci being ridiculously athletic and able to do just about everything, on her own, I still love having a harness with full body support and a handle for those times I need to snatch her up quickly, carry her across a deep creek or help her up a giant boulder. (Ruffwear Webmaster in photo)
Coats: Tiny dogs get cold much easier than the big dogs, so coats are very important for adventures in chilly weather or for camping. I love Hurtta jackets, as well as Ruffwear coats. Both brands have great options. Hurtta’s tend to be warmer, with more coverage. Ruffwear coats are thinner, but less bulky which is great for hiking. (Hurtta Summit Parka in photo)
Life Jacket: We also love to go paddleboarding (blog post on that, next month!), so a life jacket is very important. My absolute favorite for Quinci is from Alcott. It is flexible, not too bulky, has fully belly coverage and long enough to support me using the handle to pick her up, if needed. (Alcott life jacket in photo)
Bottom line is - never underestimate those pint-sized pups. Get them ready and hit the trails. They will be forever grateful for the opportunity to join you on your adventures - including, but not limited to: hiking, camping, backpacking, paddleboarding, kayaking, mountain biking and more! And remember to keep it fun, for you and your dog. It should be a joy, not a job, to have your furry best friends with you on your adventures!
For some pint-sized motivation, check out some of our favorite adventurers:
Katie, Chipper and Quinci (@trustyourtrail)
(photograph taken by Kathleen Brooks - @goldentrailz)