Lessons Learned from Hiking a Pitbull
At the time of writing, my dog, Buddy — an adopted American Staffordshire Terrier-Rottweiler mix — has logged over 100,000 ft in total elevation gain, in temperatures ranging from -10 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 95 degrees F. We’ve hiked up and down the east coast together— from the Wilderness of northern Maine, to the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, and the Everglades of southern Florida.
During this time, I’ve gotten to know both him and the various characteristics and factors of hiking a Pitbull type dog, like the back of my hand. I’ve also noticed a serious lack of available information on hiking dogs — and Pitbulls in particular — online. To this end, the following blog post contains lessons I’ve learned about hiking a Pitbull type dog over my time spent with Buddy in no particular order. It is important to mention that every dog is different and therefore this post is by no means a manual that is always true. Every dog is different and Pitbulls are a widely varying grouping of dogs.
Note: This post assumes that you are a seasoned hiker yourself. To that end, it makes no mention of more obvious essentials like bringing plenty of water, dog and human food, human clothing, human gear, etc.
Regulating Body Temperature
Because of their low levels of body fat, short coat, and high muscle mass, Generally, Pitbulls need a lot of help protecting against the elements in both warm and cold conditions.
Keeping warm is a continual challenge for many Pitbulls. As with humans, layers are a Pitbull’s best friend when it comes to cold temperatures. Start with a base layer that hugs close to the body — just like a human base layer — and use as many intermediate layers as you desire while paying close attention not to hinder mobility. For a top layer, we suggest the Hurrta Extreme Warmer — a proverbial bodysuit, that provides coverage from ears-to-tail, with a foil lining for heat reflection. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it!
In the summer months, it’s important to make sure that Pitbulls don’t overheat — something they may be prone to do due to their high muscle mass. This problem is a bit trickier to handle since you can’t add layers for heat protection. During summer, monitor for dehydration by checking the color of your dogs’ gums — if your dogs’ gums are tacky and off-color, they may be dehydrated. You can also press their gums with your index finger — a hydrated dogs’ gums will return to their normal state quickly. In the warmer weather, you do have one advantage that you do not have in the winter; you can stop and rest. Take frequent breaks in warm weather.
We have never used commercially available cool vests, but it is still important to know how to cool your dog down. To cool your dog down, take a large piece of fabric and soak it in water. then tie the fabric loosely around your Pitbull’s neck — like a bandana. The evaporating water will help your dog to cool down. Keep in mind that your best weapon against the heat is to just stop and rest.
These dogs are Tough.
Not that they ever should have to, but Pitbulls are more than capable of toughing-it-out. They are some of the toughest and pound-for-pound strongest trail dogs I’ve ever witnessed, and their very unique set of physical and mental traits allows them to endure rough conditions, and navigate amazingly technical trails — even better than many humans.
The token toughness of Pitbulls has it’s downsides, however. Pitbulls don’t give up — at anything, ever — and will rarely show signs of stress until it’s too late. Combined with their incredible loyalty (which I will discuss later), these dogs will push until they die. To this end, it is incredibly important to perform status checks periodically to ensure their gear is working properly, their physical condition is good, etc.
No dog should ever be dangerously strained!! Pitbulls will not stop, meaning that their life is in your hands — do not take this lightly!!
The Bigger they Come, the Harder (and Faster) they Fall
While this isn’t a Pitbull-specific topic it is still relevant as Pitbulls can be larger dogs. Generally speaking, the larger a dog is the harder and faster they will crash on a hike. This factor combined with the Pitbull’s ability to mask pain makes it even more important to continually monitor your Pitbull for signs of stress. Since Pitbulls often have more exposed muscules, checking in on their physical status is easier than most. Under physical stress, their muscles will become warm, even hot, to the touch. Over time you will learn when they have more gas in the tank, and when they’re done, by feeling their muscles.
Large, but Agile. Don’t Try to Follow Them.
Pitbulls are stereotypically large, muscular — and often imposing — dogs. They are also incredibly agile. Pitbulls will be able to climb through small and steep areas. If your pitbull is off-leash trained or is pathfinding, it is important that you do not try to follow them. They are smart enough to know what they are capable of and they will often be able to travel a path that you can not. Trust their instincts, and let them climb as they see fit.
Pitbulls are Loyal and Trusting - to a Fault
Pitbulls are beyond-a-reasonable-doubt one of the most loyal and trusting dog types in the world. These dogs will die for their owners if they feel necessary and will do anything they are asked to do. This bond will become more and more pronounced as you hike with your Pitbull. It is incredibly important that you do not abuse this bond! When used properly and responsibly, this bond can be useful. Pitbulls will often overcome their fears — whether they are hight-related, water-related, etc — because they trust their owners, unconditionally. Many Pitbulls — Buddy included — do amazing things with their owners for this reason. It’s not that they’re not scared, it’s that they trust their owners and have the courage and trust to do it anyway.
As any Pitbull owner knows, Pitbulls play with a sense of reckless abandon. The same holds true in the outdoors. It is important to make sure your Pitbull isn’t having so much fun that they inadvertently hurt themselves- potentially by rolling down a steep incline and breaking a bone. I’ve had some close calls with Buddy out there. Make sure they don’t hurt themselves!
Fairly Smart, but Not Einstein
Pitbulls are relatively smart dogs. As mentioned, they will be able to determine what they are capable of and what they aren’t. You won’t have to worry about them walking off the side of a cliff, or drinking nonpotable water. They’re not the most intelligent dogs on the face of the earth, but they can hold their own and will learn quickly. For instance, Buddy knows to nudge my Nalgene bottles when he’s thirsty and will often drink directly from them — not bad! They won’t willingly put themselves in situations that they can’t handle. Feel free to let them make their own decisions when hiking.
Protect those Paws, and Saftey Gear
This last section isn’t Pitbull specific. As with any dog, it is important that Pitbulls have proper foot protection. This factor becomes more critical as the dog gets heavier. It is important to have multiple options for foot protection. We use boots to protect Buddy’s paws from rocks when scrambling, and from ice-cold conditions as well as Musher’s Wax to protect from cooler temperatures and snow (around 30 degrees F). We often combine wax, boots, and boot liners when conditions are exceptionally cold (below 15 degrees F). It is important to mention that, just like all other factors, every dog is different and therefore differs in foot care needs.
The unfortunate reality is that no rescue team on the face of the earth is going to come for your dog. In many places, it’s dangerous enough to come looking for a human being. Rescue missions are also expensive, nerve-wracking, and tense situations. If you carry a PLB and set it off for the sake of Fido, you’re not going to have a lot of friends! To this end, your dog's life is in your hands if anything should happen. Please be sure you can evacuate them if needed and have precautionary safety gear to make sure you will never need to do so!
To safely hike with any dog make sure that you have:
1. A weight-bearing harness with a sturdy handle. A harness with a sturdy handle will allow you to pick up your dog and carry them over obstacles if necessary. We use a service dog-looking harness from a company called Ice Fang — in all honesty, it was the cheapest thing I could find that still worked. Over one year, it’s held up surprisingly well. We’ve also gotten comments that it looks pretty cool. That said, I’m a function over form person, and couldn’t care less about looks.
2. An emergency harness, that will allow you to sling your dog over your shoulders, should they need to be evacuated. We use Pack-a-Paw Resue Harness from a local company called Mountain Dogwear. Luckily, we’ve never had to actually use it. Check them out, here.
3. A light, especially if your dog walks off-leash. Make sure you have a light with multiple strobing patterns and colors for maximum visibility in all conditions. We like using The Beacon from Ruffwear. It’s not cheap, but it’s rechargeable and it works well. If you end up trying one of these lights, be warned that its Achilles heel is staying on your dog, especially if your dog likes to roll around in the mud and stuff — as dogs do!
4. Poop bags. In many delicate ecosystems, like Alpine Zones, for example, dog waste will not break down easily and can cause significant damage. Make sure your poop bags are biodegradable. You will also have to hike dog waste out in your bag (or your dogs packs). That can mean you may have to carry nastiness on your back, for miles, in varying degrees of heat. I strongly suggest that you have some kind of secondary bag to make sure nothing leaks. Trust me on that one.
Dogs should also be kept on a leash in delicate and dangerous environments.
5. Goggles. We’ve recently started using Rex Specs and suggest them, especially for rougher weather conditions like the ones that are common on tall mountains. If you need eye protection, so does your dog.
Hiking with any dog can be an incredibly rewarding experience but does come with some added complications. A good mantra to follow is that hiking with a dog is like hiking with a strong toddler that can’t talk. Follow that, and you and your Pittie will have more fun than most people can imagine.
Have questions? Feel free to reach out to me and Buddy on Instagram @buddythadogg!