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Skill Builder : Camping Canines

How to prep your pup for a night in the wild.

By Lyssa Myska Allen

Fall in Texas is the perfect time to pitch a tent, spark a fire and snuggle into a sleeping bag. Camping can be as easy as driving a car up to a site and setting up, or as elaborate as hiking miles in to a primitive spot. Certified professional dog trainer Shari Elkins, who teaches a class on hiking with dogs at the Lee Mannix Center for Canine Behavior, recommends primitive camping when you have a dog – it gives you peace and quiet, plus time alone with your pup. Elkins, who regularly camps with up to five dogs at a time, shares her top tips for a successful camping experience.

Obey the park rules

Being a responsible dog owner means obeying the rules of the park, because not every park allows dogs. "The more we follow those guidelines and show that our dogs can be great hikers and campers, the more we're going to be invited back," says Elkins. One of Elkins' favorite dog-friendly parks is Central Texas' Colorado Bend State Park, which has beautiful riverside campsites in a range of distances – some as easy as a mile hike from the entrance.

Practice in the backyard

Set up the tent long before you hit the trail. Elkins recommends that all dogs stay in the tent with you, because you don't have any control over what goes on outside. Setting the tent up in your backyard ensures that your dog will be comfortable when out in the woods. Elkins also recommends that you invest in small mats, "so dogs don't have to sleep on the hard ground. Otherwise, they end up sleeping on top of you."

Hike before you camp

Taking a walk in the city is very different from walking on a trail, so build up your dog's endurance with some practice hikes. Start small and work up to several miles. This should also help "carpet feet" - the soft pads on dogs who aren't used to being outside. If your dog has those, consider buying a paw-toughening cream like Tuf-Foot.

Supplies

  • A pack
    If you're going on a longer trek and your dog is over 30 pounds, consider having your dog carry its own pack with food, water, and sleeping mat. Kelty and Mountainsmith both make affordable packs that are available at hiking/camping specialty stores. Try the pack on your dog to make sure it fits and doesn't slip.
  • High-protein dog food
    Long hikers may need to buy higher protein dog food. The first time Elkins took her Siberian huskies on a long hike, they reached the summit and the dogs were shivering! Elkins quickly realized they just needed more calories. Innova Evo and Wellness Core are two good dry dog foods to try.
  • Doggie first aid kit
    Widely available, doggie first aid kits contain remedies specific to dogs, like bandages that stick to themselves, a thermometer and medications. Elkins notes that the bandaging equipment is the most important because "Band-aids don't stick to dogs."
  • Bug spray and sunscreen
    Mosquitoes can take much of the fun out of camping for dogs, especially short-haired breeds. Insect repellent specially formulated for dogs is an easy and effective way to prevent the itch. Sunscreen is also important for white-haired or pink-nosed dogs. Baby sunscreen is one human first aid product that works for dogs, with its sensitive-skin formula and high SPF.

Model camper

Keeping your dog under control is a challenge out in the wild, with all sorts of new and strange wildlife. Elkins' huskies especially loved armadillos, and she had to work hard to get them to stop lunging out at the state animal when they were hiking. She says, "you have to be much stricter" on the trail than in a neighborhood. But the better behaved your dog is, the easier camping will be. Then you can get to what you hiked out there for in the first place – to relax, to connect with yourself and to bond with your best four-legged friend.

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