Hiking with Senior Dogs: The do’s, don’ts, and how-to’s

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One of our family’s core values includes getting outside. Long walks in a quiet forest. Playing in a field. Stomping in a stream. Exploring and exercising. Breathing fresh air.

And our dogs have always been an integral part of that outdoor experience.

Now, closing in on Cooper’s thirteenth birthday, we find ourselves making accommodations and adjustments to our hiking routines to ensure his comfort and enjoyment. Because even though he’s aging, we couldn’t imagine leaving Cooper behind! (Though sometimes that is the right choice. More on that in a minute.)

A distant shot of a tall man wearing a yellow knit cap, and wearing a large hiking pack, hiking pants, and boots, walking alongside a small brown dog who wears a leash and harness. The forest is misty. The understory is green while the evergreen trees have few low branches. The text overlay reads: hiking with senior dogs.

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Can senior dogs go hiking?

Short answer: of course!

Longer answer: It depends on a bunch of factors, like your dog’s health, the weather, the distance and duration of the hike, the terrain, and so much more. So, let’s dig into those factors, shall we?

Much of this discussion, like most things with senior dogs, is conditional. If your dog has back-end stability… If your dog has arthritis… If your dog has vision or hearing loss… and so on. Remember, I’m not a vet. I’m just someone committed to spending time outside as much as possible with my dogs for as long as possible sharing our experiences.

Senior dogs can go hiking! Often, the best hikes require a bit of modification to accommodate your dog’s specific needs, but those extra steps shouldn’t prevent you from getting outside together though your dog’s golden years!

The benefits to adventuring outdoors with your senior dog

There’s almost no reason not to take your senior dog on an outdoor adventure but many reasons to take your pup! Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the benefits for your dog–and for you:

  • Physical exercise. Necessary as our dogs age to maintain strength and keep him or her at a healthy weight.
  • Reduce boredom. Though they may not show it like puppies do, aka eating the couch, older dogs can get mighty bored lying around the house all day.
  • Fresh air <– something we ALL need more of
  • Mental stimulation. The sights, the sounds, the smells!
  • Reduce anxiety and depression. Estimates suggest that as many as 75 percent of senior dogs deal with depression.
  • A dose of vitamin D. This helps your dog maintain normal calcium and phosphorus levels.
  • Bonding time. Outdoor adventures help you and your dog keep that bond strong.

With all those benefits, there’s no reason not to get outside! Let’s start today with a solid plan.

How to plan an outdoor adventure with your senior dog

While all this sounds positive and doable–and it is–we also need to be realistic with our seniors. Most aging pups need at least some accommodation to make outdoor adventures safe. And all that starts with a solid plan!

First, honestly assess your dog’s health. It might help to check in with your vet to get an objective opinion on your dog’s fitness level. How’s your pup’s muscle tone? What about aerobic health? Are there any disabilities or health concerns that might impact the hike?

For instance, with Cooper, he’s starting to lose muscle mass as we all do as we age. However, he spent his entire life running, so he has a solid, strong foundation. He’s always had a ton of good exercise, so his aerobic fitness is pretty solid, too. Unfortunately, he was recently diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, which means his hind legs struggle to stay under him. So, while we know we can do some nice, long hikes with him, we need to plan for terrain that doesn’t require a ton of hind-end strength. So, I seek out flat, well-maintained trails for my guy.

Your dog might have different challenges. For an elderly dog who has vision loss, for instance, hiking in full sun might serve your dog better than early morning or evening. A dog who can’t hear can be easily surprised, so planning hikes in on-leash parks helps eliminate the element of a surprise dog rushing up unheard.

Second, plan a hike that meets your dog at his or her level. With a young, fit dog, adding stretch goals–more miles, rougher terrain, etc.–can be a lot of fun. Who doesn’t love a good challenge? Wellllll, your senior dog, probably. Check out maps and trail guides as you plan to make sure the distance and conditions are right for your senior. Call the park rangers and ask for details about the terrain.

This planning phase also includes keeping an eye on the weather. Most old dogs suffer from some degree of joint pain. Cold temps or damp weather might make the hike uncomfortable and the recovery time prolonged. That’s not to say you can only hike on clear, warm, sunny days (but, goodness, doesn’t that sound nice?!?!?) but just a reminder to be mindful of the weather. I do suggest avoiding icy conditions because a slip or fall can be much harder on our old buddies.

Third, modify as needed. This one is so important it gets its own section!

Hiking modifications for aging pups

If you love rugged terrain and extreme distances, do it! Just do it by yourself… or with friends… but leave your old dog at home. I mentioned this in the beginning: Sometimes the right, though bittersweet, choice is to leave your dog at home.

When you plan to go hiking with senior dogs, you’re planning to make them happy. So, that includes a host of modifications, like:

  • shorter distances
  • flatter terrain
  • calmer weather conditions
  • flexible dates so you can reschedule if your dog isn’t feeling up to it, the weather turns, etc.

When you want to push yourself, to climb higher, to walk farther, leave your dog at home.

5 Safety tips for hiking with senior dogs

  • Watch for dehydration. Keep your dog hydrated with small sips frequently. Gulping water is no good, and neither is dehydration.
  • Prevent injuries. What can heal quickly in a young pup can be catastrophic for a senior. Keep an eye on your dog’s paws. Watch for any limping, stiffness, or soreness. Chat with your vet about your dog’s specific health condition and gather tips for injury prevention. Don’t forget to bring a first aid kit. You can DIY or pick up a small pet-specific kit like this one.
  • Rest! Cooper would hike until he dropped. Literally, if we left it up to him, he would walk, run, or hike until he physically could not continue on–which is not a good thing. It’s how he’s built, though. So, we need to be responsible for knowing when to push and when to stop. And these days, nearing 13, stopping happens way more than pushing. Build in time to rest.
  • Be prepared. Don’t forget to bring a first aid kit. You can DIY or pick up a small pet-specific kit like this one.
  • Recover. Your senior dog needs plenty of rest and recovery time. This recovery can include ice packs and heating pads, longer naps on an orthopedic pillow, a massage, and so on. After your outdoor adventure, monitor your dog’s recovery and if you notice anything out of the ordinary–a new limp, itchy skin, sore spots–call your vet.
A German shepherd dog stands on a rocky outcropping with scrubby weeds overlooking a valley that rises into a snow-covered mountain. His tongue hangs out panting. The text overlay reads: hiking with senior dogs.

Supportive Gear

I tend to be pretty minimal about gear–except water… I always take so much water–so these are just the basics. However, if you’re hiking with senior dogs, you need at least a few things beyond just a leash-collar-water bottle.

On the trail:

  • Harness with a handle. That handle will prove invaluable if you have to help your dog over a fallen tree or through a creek bed. For his first decade, Cooper always wore a Kurgo pack with saddlebags to tote his own water, poop bags, and first aid supplies. Now, I don’t want him to lug the extra weight, so he has a Ruffwear harness in red to make him stand out in the woods.
  • GingerLead, optional. We’re not here yet with Coop, but for dogs who need the extra lift support, nothing beats a GingerLead. It’s better for you, too, since you don’t have to do as much bending and lifting. Highly recommend! Just make sure you check their fit chart before you order!
  • First aid kit. Treat cuts and scrapes on the trail. Older dogs require more help to heal. For short hikes, I keep a teeny-tiny kit like this one clipped to the leash, but for longer hikes or to keep in your car, stow a full kit.

In recovery:

  • Heating pad. Allow me to introduce you to the greatest heating pad ever. If you have a small dog, this might be too big, but it’s honestly the best. It is big, big enough for me (which, let’s be fair, I’m in my 40’s and use this after every single hike these days), and it’s big enough to cover Cooper’s entire hind end. Love this so much, and it’s become a necessary part of his recovery.
  • Ice pack. For inflammation or injury, you need a solid ice pack. I like the kinds that can be used hot or cold, like this set, but even just ice in a ziploc wrapped in a towel can work wonders.
  • Orthopedic blanket or pillow, optional. We got Cooper the big orthopedic bed from Costco that was on sale a couple years ago. He rarely uses it. I do like to toss it in the back of the car so he can rest comfortably on the way home from an adventure, but it’s really not his jam. He prefers my bed or the couch. I do think a blanket like this or one of the donut beds is on our wish list to cozy-up his rest time. (Does anyone have one? If so, are they easy to wash??? That is my main hesitation…)

Take your senior dog on an outdoor adventure!

There’s no reason not to!

I hope to take Cooper and the girls on a camping trip this summer. One 13-year-old dog, and two small girls (6 and 3)… maybe we should bring the cats, too! What could go wrong?!?! 🙂 Of course, I’ll plan meticulously, but let me know if you’d like me to do a post about how I plan a camping trip for our unique crew.

Hopefully I’ve given you enough to begin to plan your hike with your senior pup. If you have any questions, or if you’d like to share your adventures, please do in the comments! Happy hiking!

Read more:

Everything you need to know about loving a senior dog

Everything you ever wanted to know about senior dogs and mobility


Photos by Ruta Celma and Yuriy Bogdanov on Unsplash


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