Oh Damn. This ish is tough. I mean TOUGH. Seriously one of the most difficult parts of this hike has been the dogs. Granted, there are two of them, but just in case you were thinking of attempting a thru with your pup:
THINK CAREFULLY. Of course you want to have your dog with you, but doing so completely changes the parameters of your hike. If you are not willing to make every single decision on your hike with your dog as an important factor, then you should not bring them.
Our dogs are wonderful on trail. They are endlessly happy to be hiking, so encouraging when you are having a bad day, and just wonderful and (mostly) well behaved pups in general. Both are hunting breeds, one rabbit and one bird/hog, so they are breeds well suited to this kind of high stress environment. They are healthy and have excellent bone structure and musculature, and are young enough that they can handle this kind of intense physical undertaking. Not all breeds are suited to a long distance hike like this. Dogs that are elderly, sickly, sedentary, or otherwise not active off trail will more than likely flounder on. Some dogs don’t like hiking. Some just don’t like having to wear a pack or harness, some don’t like to hike at all. Of course there is always the exception, I am not attacking your dog’s ability to do a long distance hike; what I am saying is that you need to really carefully examine your dog’s personality and health to decide if this is right for them.
Speaking further into personality, on a thru hike dogs are endlessly confronted with other dogs and humans. Know how your dog reacts in various situations. Charlie loves every single being (and stick) he has ever encountered; Bandit sometimes reacts negatively to intact males. When we started the trail Bandit, an intact male himself, was so overwhelmed by the loss of familiarity and territory that he could not safely interact with any male dogs. After actively working with him along the trail – because you should consider the possibility that trail behaviors might not go away when the trail does – he now is fine almost 100% of the time; we use no-pull collars for both dogs anyway, and just are sure to formally introduce him to intact males his size or larger in case of any spontaneous freak out. Bandit mostly walks on his own: we loop his leash through the harness so that you can easily grab hold of it and make him walk between us – this ensures that interactions with other dogs always happen, at least on our behalf, on the terms that work best for us.
This next bit is where a lot of hikers-with-dogs might lose their shit on me: I hate when people let their dogs run off leash and out of site. As I just expressed, Bandit is not completely predictable when it comes to interactions with other large, intact males. If your intact Saint Bernard comes truckin around the corner and barrels at him in an attempt to play, I cannot be certain he won’t start growling, snapping, and lunging. Now, here’s the thing, We have never let Bandit get to a male he has reacted negatively to, and I genuinely think he’s all bark; however, if he were to injure your dog, YOU ARE ALSO TO BLAME. I keep my dog leashed, collared, and contained – I am doing all that I can to make his experience on the trail as enjoyable for him and us as possible, I CANNOT ALSO DO THAT FOR EVERY DOG ON THE TRAIL. A huge part of hiking with dogs is considering that not every dog likes people or other dogs, just like not every human likes dogs. We have actually met many people on trail who are afraid of dogs; if Bandit ran up and down willy nilly, how could I act with basic human decency and get him out of that person’s way? To expect every person and animal to act in your best interest on the trail is not only delusional, but childishly selfish. It is your responsibility as a pet owner to keep control of your animal AT ALL TIMES. This, really, is the most important part of this I could possibly impart to you. If your dog is off on their own little adventure, you cannot do that. It takes training to teach your pup to walk with you, but if that works for you, cool. Better yet, invest in a hands free leash system. We are partial to one from Amazon called Tuff Mutt that has a bungee leash, and we added a paracord extender to lengthen the leash about a foot and a half when needed or desired. This is tougher with pullers, which is why we pair it (for both dogs) with a Herm Sprenger no-pull collar. Find a system that works for you. I promise that there is a way to provide both freedom and structure to your dog’s hike if you are willing to be creative and try new methods. Talk to other hikers with dogs! We’ve all had some kind of weird interaction, because dogs are weird, so maybe I have an innovative way of getting a finicky dog to eat. You can’t know unless you ask.
Gear is another big one. Not all dogs are the same. Charlie doesn’t like carrying a pack or even wearing a harness. Bandit loses his shit if you even touch his harness, and he knows that adding the saddlebags means it’s time to go and taking them off means break time. We use collapsible bowls, but it took a few tries to find one Bandit wouldn’t shred trying to get every last bite (Thanks Ruffwear!) We carried a set of boots from dogbooties.com for each dog starting in the whites, after Bandit ground his back nails down to the quick through The Notch. Every day, though, I apply Musher’s Wax to the pads of all four paws, as well as to the spots Bandit’s harness tends to rub most (under front legs and across shoulders) and on his elbows where he loses the fur from laying on hard surfaces. They sleep in the tent with us, though we carry a separate therm-a-rest pad we found at Woody Gap specifically for them. When colder weather starts to hit I carry sweaters for them, since neither grows a noticeable winter coat and both are lean short hairs. Finally, I carry a couple dog specific first aid items, including a spray to keep them from licking wounds and a dog safe spray on bandage.
Then there’s food. We opted, on our 2017 hike, for Sojo’s raw dehydrated dog food, specifically the turkey one. I could have it easily shipped to hostels with Amazon Prime, and 8lbs of Sojos is equivalent to about 35-40 pounds of rehydrated dog food. It is important to note two things, though, if you are considering using dehydrated food: it is hella expensive and you have to be sure you order enough to get you to the next spot. If I had too much, I mailed it ahead and ordered less next round. If I ordered too little, I carried the extra weight myself in regular dry food from town. I should also probably note that 35-40 pounds of rehydrated raw food does not necessarily equal the volume of 35-40 pounds of your regular dry food. I also spent hours scouring dog treats for higher calorie options to help in between meals. My absolute favorite was a dog protein bar that is unfortunately no longer produced. When We ran out of those I generally went with Puperoni or this duck jerky I can’t remember the name of (clear, gold, and blue packaging. Grey dog on the front. Pretty sure.) since those were usually the highest calorie per treat and/or protein. Sometimes I carried Peanut butter to share with them (Dylan doesn’t like PB) and we also, except for really spicy stuff, always have them lick our plates (ewww gross blech why – uh cause then I don’t have to drink the grey water, duh).
All in all, I absolutely cannot imagine having done any of this trail without my two goobers. I love those pups more than I can even begin to put into words and this trail made such vast improvements in both their behavior and mine as a pet owner. I would not change any of the things we’ve been through, except maybe for that time Charlie ran off from Lakes of the Clouds hut at 9pm in the dark…. That I could have done without. I can’t wait to get back out with them this year, this time with the help of a van we call Bonnie. BUT, I would be remiss not to mention that I am also painfully aware of how much cheaper, simpler, and faster this whole thing would be without them. There’s a reason we took advantage of opportunities to Slack Pack without them when meeting friends along the way. There’s also a reason we literally ran the last mile or so to Davenport Gap to reunite with them on the Northern side of the Smokies. They’re the best and the worst and hiking with them is right for us.
Is it for you?