COLUMN: Kids, dogs and hikes: a winning combination

Hiking with your family pet can teach your children important lessons about responsibility, empathy and teamwork. (Courtesy photo) 

Hiking with your children together with your family’s fury best friend provides a wonderful opportunity to not only get outside with your family, but also to teach children important lessons about responsibility, empathy and appreciation for nature. When kids learn to watch and care for another being at a young age, it sets them up well for the responsibilities and teamwork that will help them be successful later in life. Hiking itself also helps kids develop resiliency, goal-setting and a greater love for the outdoors, all of which are crucial to developing lifelong healthy habits.

Hiking with kids or with your dog, each add a layer of responsibility and in combination the two require preparation, situational awareness and maybe some up-front training time to make sure everyone is ready for the adventure.

The first aspect worth considering is the training level of your dog. Is your dog already well-behaved? Is she a young, energetic puppy, or an old, mellow hound? Is he a small, easy-to-control toy breed, or a big, strong mass of muscle that requires a strong hand to maintain control of the leash if he sees something enticing? All of these considerations need to be thought out ahead of time to ensure your hike is safe for both your kids and your dog; these factors will determine how much dog responsibility you can hand over to your child. If needed, you may even consider working on specific obedience training with your dog before moving on to letting your child take the reins.

Secondly, consider your child’s traits and abilities. Are they very young, or already entering their teenage years? Are they a focused type, or easily distracted? Do they show much empathy, or are they still working on thinking about the needs of others besides themselves? Are they timid and easily frightened, or possibly even too brave at times? If you give your child more than they can comfortably handle, it could put both them and the dog at risk.

After you’ve thought over these safety considerations, you’re ready to think about what kinds of responsibilities will be suitable considering the combination of the traits of your child and your dog, and where the dog’s needs may overlap with the child’s abilities and competencies.

If you have a very young child who’s just starting to understand caring for the family pet, they could be the designated water bearer (or if that’s too much, they can carry a light, collapsible water dish). It will be their job (with some oversight, of course) to determine when the dog might want a water break, and to provide it for them.

They could also be the treat giver—fill their pocket with some small treats, and let them decide when the dog has done something good that deserves a treat. Or, they can just give a treat whenever they feel like, just because it’s a nice thing to do.

For a slightly bigger kid, but one who isn’t quite ready to take control of the leash, they can work on a “heel” command. You hold the leash, put the dog's heels between the two of you, and when he starts to stray, it’s your child’s responsibility to give the “heel” command and remind them to get back to the correct spot. It could also be a chance to teach an automatic sit — every time you stop moving, your child can ask the dog to sit, and give them a treat when they do.

As you get to older youth (or if you have an extremely docile, well-trained dog) they can exclusively take responsibility for the family pet; holding the leash and practicing heel, asking the dog to sit when stopped, determining appropriate times for water breaks, or any other role you can think of that gives them more responsibilities to manage.

Giving a young person responsibilities regarding your pet’s care promotes their sense of leadership, asks them to think about the needs of the dog in addition to their own, and helps them learn to focus on a specific task over a long period of time, and even as other things are happening. All of these traits are very beneficial to their healthy development into responsible and thoughtful adults, and the best part is that they’re just having fun — hiking with the family pet, not even realizing the important lessons they’re learning in the process.

So pick out a fun, dog-friendly hike, saddle up your fury best friend, and give your kids some specific, caring roles to accomplish — it will be fun for everyone.

For more outdoor safety tips, trail game ideas, and hiking trails, visit the Friends of Youth and Nature (FOYA) website at FOYAN is a non-profit that promotes opportunities for youth and families to go outside, experiencing outdoor activities and exploring nature. 

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