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Taking a hike? Six feet can be better than two

Heading for the hills with a canine in tow can make walking more fun and the human more faithful to the routine.

August 23, 2004|Connie Farrow | Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — People who love to hike find taking a four-legged companion along can provide physical benefits at both ends of the leash.

Studies show people are more successful at losing weight when they do it with a friend. What better friend than a dog to provide company and keep a person on track?

Randy Galbraith began taking his German shorthaired pointer hiking five years ago and the two generally hike between six and 12 miles daily.

"To me, it's a treasure to be with Fritz. Every day, he has to have his run, no matter what," Galbraith said. "He'll give you a look that says, 'It's time to go.' "

Doug Gelbert, author of "The Canine Hiker's Bible," said dogs love to sniff and explore and can offer new insight into the outdoors. "As a dog walks along, sometimes he perks up his ears and looks at stuff that we don't even recognize," he said.

Richard Meadows, a veterinarian and director of community practice at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine, advises that both humans and canines who haven't been exercising regularly should start slowly.

Like their owners, American dogs are putting on pounds. They may not watch TV or play video games, but they may spend lots of time napping.

"The numbers seem to range somewhere between 15% and 25% of the dogs and cats in the United States are obese," Meadows said.

The risks of being overweight are the same, whether you have two legs or four, he said. They include heart and joint disease, diabetes, cancer and a shortened life span.

"Just like us, they can't be dumped into a program. They need to work into it and build muscle tone and endurance," said Meadows, who has been a researcher in several animal exercise studies.

He said dogs should be examined after hikes for footpad injuries and strained muscles, as well as ticks and fleas.

People should also remember that their dog is wearing a fur coat and has a lower tolerance for heat, Meadows said, and they need lots of water.

Opinions differ on what type of dog is best for the trails. Gelbert, who has been hiking with dogs for about 20 years, suggests people tailor their selection to how they want to hike. Information about the various breeds can be easily found on the Internet and through kennel clubs.

And to avoid disappointment, hikers should call ahead to make sure the site they plan to visit allows dogs on trails.

Gelbert has created the website hikewithyourdog.com to help people find dog-friendly parks and trails.

In national parks, he said, dogs are generally only allowed to go where cars can go. They are allowed on most national forest trails, although access can sometimes be remote. There are few bans, however, on dogs in national historical parks.

But dog owners need to be responsible, Gelbert said. "It always bothers me when I see a sign that says, 'No dogs allowed.' It seems to me that it would be much better to put up a sign that says, 'Dog owners, every time you come out with your dog, you are an ambassador for every other dog using these parks.' "

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