8 Safety Tips For Hiking With a Small Dog That You Need To Know

Fancy haired Shih Tzus with their long flowing locks may not look like hardcore hikers. Well, okay, ‘hardcore’ may not be the best description. Their elegant demeanor doesn’t mean they wouldn’t love a hike in the woods if given the chance.

What’s it like hiking with a small dog? If you’re willing to let your small dog set the pace, stay on trails without too much elevation and carry your pup if it gets too tired, then a world of fun new experiences await you both in the great outdoors.

Toy poodles and mini-pins don’t have the same physical need or capacity for hard exercise as a Labrador or a Vizsla. They can still fully enjoy the benefits of exploring nature. To enjoy hiking with your small dog, you need to be aware of the essentials to keep your dog safe and happy.

The Essentials of Hiking With a Small Dog

There are some universal precautions every human should take no matter how big or small the dog. These include always obeying the rules. That means don’t bring your dog into places where they are prohibited (like some National Parks). Your dog’s safety is your number-one priority. But getting off the grid with a smaller breed does require some special safety considerations. Let’s explore these in more detail now.

Top 8 Safety Tips for Hiking With a Small Dog

Whether it’s Netflix and chill or shredding it on the trail, your four-legged shorty wants nothing more than to make you proud, even if it means overexerting himself during an outdoor adventure. Just because he can do it, doesn’t mean he should, and it’s up to you to keep your pet safe and healthy.

Know your dog

Small-breed dogs are generally as fit and capable as their long-legged counterparts. However, there are a few unique health issues that occur more commonly among small breeds. If trail hiking is a new activity for you and your pooch, start with a visit to the vet to make sure there are no indications of the following disorders.

Patellar Luxation

Patellar luxation disorder can occur in any breed, but small dogs are more prone to the problem.

It is a condition that causes the kneecap to become dislocated from its correct position. Depending on the severity of the dislocation, some dogs may limp or favor one of their hind limbs.

In some cases, the symptoms are barely noticeable which is why it’s a good idea to have a vet give the okay before you start hiking. The condition can be mild to severe, even requiring surgery in some circumstances.

Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD)

Dachshunds, Corgis and other small breeds with long bodies are especially vulnerable to IVDD.

Like the human spine, a dog’s spine has cushions between the vertebras. If the spinal cord comes into contact with those cushions, a variety of issues can occur, including pain, swelling and even paralysis.  

One way to protect your pooch from intervertebral disk disease is to prevent them from jumping on or off boulders, tree stumps or other elevated objects on the trail. For that matter, jumping on or off the bed or couch should also be discouraged. However, some dogs are just going to jump no matter what you do. While hiking, take extra care to make sure your pet doesn’t leap from anything higher than your furniture at home.

Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome (BAS)

Several dog breeds are categorized as brachycephalic. It simply means the dog’s skull bones are shortened, giving a “pushed in” look to the face. It’s what makes Pugs and Chins so adorable! Brachycephalic breeds include:

  • Bulldog
  • Boxer
  • Boston Terrier
  • Bull Mastiff
  • Chinese Pug
  • Japanese Chin
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Pekinese
  • Shih Tzu.

A brachycephalic dog can still run, play and go for a hike, However, their anatomy puts them at risk for a grouping of breathing problems referred to collectively as brachycephalic airway syndrome or BAS.  BAS can cause minor symptoms like breathing hard during exercise or snoring. More severe symptoms include loud wheezing, retching, vomiting or fainting.

Use extra caution in hot weather. Brachycephalic dogs can easily get overheated which may cause serious health problems. Even death can occur. If you notice any breathing issues in your brachycephalic dog—on or off the trail—discontinue vigorous exercise and consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Not feeling the best

Of course, any time your dog exhibits pain, illness or unusual hesitation during a hike, pick her up and head home.  

Assuming that she’s “faking” or needs to be taught discipline is a mistake when so many unknown factors are at play.

Everyone has days when they’re not quite feeling their best, even dogs.

Get up to date

Nature is filled with beauty–and not-so-beautiful things like parasites. Make sure your baby’s flea and tick medications are up to date.

When you are outdoors hiking with your small dog, you may venture into deer territory. Deers carry ticks. Inadequate tick prevention may lead to Lyme disease in your dog. The animation below of a tick feeding off a dog’s skin grossed me out but it helps you understand how ticks transmit diseases.

Don’t forget heartworm medication as heartworm is transmitted by infected fleas

All regular vaccines should also be on schedule.

Talk to your veterinarian about other vaccinations that will keep your pet safe while hiking, such as the rattlesnake vaccine.

Don’t let your dog drink or wade water in the wild

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection in dogs. It can be passed to humans.

If you are hiking with your small dog in wet areas like puddles, creeks, mud, and marshland, do not let them drink or wade through the water. The leptospira bacteria may have infected the water and soil. Be especially cautious if your small dog loves water like these breeds:

  • Miniature or toy poodle
  • American Water Spaniel.

The lepto bacteria can also be contracted from the urine from an infected animal.

Ask your vet about the lepto vaccine. Have your dog injected if it’s appropriate before the hiking season.

Start easy

Stay on shorter, more level trails and let your dog build endurance slowly. Even a hiking trail rated for beginners will be slightly more difficult to navigate than a typical walk around the park.

Changes in elevation, obstacles and the excitement of the unknown will all cause your pooch to exert more energy and tire more quickly than during his normal routine. If your average neighborhood walk lasts around 30 minutes, plan on a 20-minute hike the first time out and build up to longer outings a few minutes at a time.

Stay on-leash

It’s tempting to let your pet explore the great outdoors unfettered. It’s not safe, even in areas that don’t require leashes.

A small dog is more at risk from birds of prey, wild or feral cats, coyotes and other dogs than a large-breed canine is. Keeping your dog on a leash prevents them from getting lost and drawing the attention of predators.

Keeping your small dog on a leash is also the considerate thing to do. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to interact with your cutie pie—even other people with dogs. A loose dog is basically a trip hazard to everyone else who’s trying to enjoy their time outdoors. Be a good neighbor, and keep your dog under control at all times.

Know the trail

Many walking trails are also shared by bicyclists, horses and even some types of motorized vehicles. If your tiny dog is timid, multi-use areas like these might be too much stimulation.

Stick to quiet areas at first. Then gradually expose your pup to the kinds of activities they might encounter in the wild.

Too many new things at once can be overwhelming. One new thing at a time helps your dog become more confident.

Get the right gear

The more and various adventures you go on, the more items you’ll be tempted to accumulate. Much like traveling with children, the load of “stuff” can get out of control if you’re not careful.

A few basics that will make your excursions easier and safer include:

  • Collapsible dishes for snacks and water.
  • Waste bags.
  • An extra lead and collar just in case one breaks.
  • A lifting harness to help your pup over and off of high obstacles or through the water.
  • A backpack for carrying extra gear and for carrying your dog through difficult sections on the trail or if those short legs need a break from walking. Once your dog is well conditioned, you may also want to fit in with its own backpack to carry a few lightweight items such as waste bags or an extra leash.
  • Emergency vet numbers in the area where you are hiking. Don’t count on finding emergency information on your phone, service may be unavailable.
  • A canine first-aid kit and a manual about basic pet first-aid. Don’t know what to put in your canine first-aid kit? Read our comprehensive camping article.

Traveling with emergency gear may seem like overkill for a short adventure, and it might be. Keeping some of the suggested items in the car or in camp makes sense if you’re not going far. But remember, a small dog has few reserves to draw on. Even a minor emergency can turn into a life-threatening situation if you’re unpreparedTake a break

Your tiny-but-mighty pup will walk for hours on end just to please you. Don’t make them!

Hiking with a small dog requires you to pay extra attention to your pet’s well-being.

Take regular breaks to let your dog cool down and rest. Every 30 minutes or so should be sufficient unless your outing is particularly challenging or the weather is hot.

Bring out the water and high-calorie snacks to help your pup recharge. Don’t be surprised if they don’t eat or drink immediately. Give them a few minutes to relax and cool down. They will probably realize they need refreshments.

Breaks are also a good time to check your dog’s pads for stickers and other debris. You can protect your dog paw pads with dog shoes.

The Benefits Of Hiking With a Small Dog

Why should you bother hiking with a small dog? Aren’t they happy at home just warming your lap? Well, yes and no.

Some small breeds could be considered downright lazy such as the English Bulldog or Pekingese. Other lil’ bits like the Bichon Frise and Yorkshire Terrier are known more for exerting short bursts of energy followed by long naps than for taking long endurance walks.

It’s true that you will need to adjust your hiking habits to meet your dog’s physical limitations, but like humans, those limitations can be expanded with practice and patience.

Think of it this way: you might also prefer laying on the couch watching TV all day, but that doesn’t mean you’re not capable or wouldn’t benefit from doing more movement or exercise. It’s the same for your dog! Just because lap warming will always be their main job, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy expanding their horizons.

When Small Dogs Go Bad

Small dogs are sometimes disparaged for being yappy, spoiled, ill-behaving creatures that are somehow less “doglike” than big dogs.

Any pup can fit that description if their needs for exercise, training, and bonding aren’t being met. Unfortunately, too many small-dog parents don’t realize their diminutive companions do need those things in order to become the happy, healthy creatures they were meant to be.

Hiking with a small dog gives you the opportunity to work on all three of those components—exercise, training, and bonding—at once.


The value of physical exercise for your small dog is an obvious one.

Whether hiking in nature or walking around the neighborhood, activity helps keep your dog stay fit and limber. Walking also helps the digestive tract and decreases the likelihood of your dog developing bladder or kidney problems. Just as important, and maybe even more in the case of small dogs who typically stay in the house most the day, participating in organized outdoor activities exercises a dog’s mental muscles as well.

Dogs rarely self-entertain and when they do, it’s often by exhibiting unwanted destructive behaviors. As all owners of small dogs know, a pooch doesn’t have to be big to cause big damage. If you come home to chewed-up shoes, turned over garbage cans or ruined furniture, your dog probably isn’t getting enough activity. Involving your pet in tasks like hiking, rally obedience, agility class, and flyball provides an important mental and physical outlet that helps them become calmer, more obedient companions at home.


Not all training is done in a formal setting. Walking your dog on a leash in any environment is a training exercise that doesn’t stop until you get home and take the leash off.  However, strolling a well-worn path around the neighborhood can get boring for both of you. Without the need for either of you to pay close attention, opportunities for further learning can be lost.

It’s a mistake to think pocket pups don’t need good manners. Small dogs are still capable of wielding that big alpha attitude that can make training a challenge.

Taking a bossy small dog out of her familiar territory automatically puts them at a disadvantage. While exploring someplace new like a hiking trail, your dog is watching you and listening for cues and commands more carefully.  

Your mastery of the environment helps reinforce to your small dog who the pack leader really is. The newly earned respect will carry over into all aspects of your training.


That special human-canine bond is the reason most people adopt dogs, to begin with. The loyalty, devoted companionship and unconditional love offered by a dog is the stuff of legends. This may be even truer with small breeds, many of which are bred specifically for companionship. Just as the retriever is bred to fetch a bird, a Shih Tzu is bred to love their human.  There’s no denying that most dogs are motivated by food treats, but the biggest motivation is the affection and attention given by their humans.

Sometimes that bond isn’t as strong as we’d like it to be. There are a variety of factors that can affect the bonding experience. Rescues with an abusive or neglectful past may be especially difficult to bond with. Signs of a weak bond include:

  • Little desire to play or be handled
  • Depression, lethargy
  • Failure to respond to commands
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Attempts to run away
  • Aggression.

Any one-on-one activity you engage in with your small dog will help build the bond between you.

Hiking is an especially good activity because, as mentioned, it also meets your pup’s need for mental and physical exercise and training. Exploring a new environment gives the two of you an opportunity to overcome obstacles together, rest and have a snack together and develop new skills together. As you help your dog successfully navigate any challenges on the trail, you’re building trust, showing him you are a strong and compassionate mentor.

And of course, all the benefits go both ways! Getting out for an occasional hike with your small dog is also good for your mental and physical health too!

Related Questions

Is there such a thing as a small dog hiking backpack?

Yes, dog backpacks for hiking come in all sizes for small, medium and large dog breeds.

Can I use a small dog hiking carrier when my dog gets too tired to walk?

Yes, if you are fit enough to hike and carry your tired pooch.

Can I take my toy poodle hiking?

You know your dog better than anyone. If their energy level can sustain a hike on a level trail, and if they respond well to commands like “come”, then go for it. That command will be useful so they tear after a rabbit or other wildlife you could see on the hiking trail.

Can I take my Cocker Spaniel hiking?

Cocker Spaniels have a lot of energy. If they could do more than a minimum of 30 minutes of walking each day, they can benefit from a hike.

Because Cocker Spaniels were bred for hunting, having them respond to the “come’ command on your hike is even more important. Your command needs to override any natural instinct to sniff down and chase wildlife.

What kind of small dog or chihuahua hiking gear is available?

Good question. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. When your small dog – even as small as a chihuahua – faces a boulder or knotted tree stump bigger than them, they may need help from you. This is where a strong harness with a handle will help. If your dog suffers from IVDD do not use a harness with a handle to lift them up. Gently pick them up and assist them
  2. A doggie backpack is a good idea. It gives you dog a job of carrying light items like:
  • Dog poop bags
  • Canine first aid kit
  • Snacks and treats.

If your small dog has back problems, don’t let them carry a backpack.

Can small dogs like Terriers protect humans when hiking?

Don’t underestimate terriers, they can be quite feisty. In fact, they make not only great hiking companions but can also keep you safe from snakes, rodents and other critters.

Go Take a Hike!

Just because their stature is small doesn’t mean their spirit isn’t enormous. Small-breed dogs can love life to the fullest if they are given the chance. It’s your job to provide them with the fun and adventure they deserve.  

Remember to consult your vet before starting out on your first hike. Begin with easy trails, follow the rules, come prepared and always make your dog’s safety the number one priority.

If you follow these guidelines you may discover you and your tiny will have a happier, healthier and maybe even longer life together than you’d ever hoped for.

Epilogue – Where To Next?

Having read this article you should be fully prepared to take your small dog for a hike? Where do you go? We’ve created some very detailed epically useful resource guides about where to go, what to see, what time of year and more. Check them out!

Name and link to the articleState covered
Can You Hike With Dogs In National Parks?Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Utah, Maine and Virginia
Top Rated Dog-Friendly Hiking Trails Near Grand Lake CoColorado
Hiking With Dogs Off-Leash in Colorado (15 Epic Hikes)Colorado

Love Small Dogs?

Author - Tammie

Tammie is a dog mom to 2 Shih Tzus. Her canines love hitting the hiking trails and exploring nature with her. She believes small dogs can be so much more than spoiled lap warmers if their human companions will just show them how. Tammie volunteers for a local rescue organization and fosters dogs in need of a patient home.

Recent Posts