When Omar and Luz Lopez of Olympia set off for a hike in Leavenworth with their German shepherd, Benz, last summer, it was a hot day.

The Lopezes are volunteer members of the German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State and are well versed in dog first aid, understanding trail and weather conditions, and recognizing signs of malaise in their dog. But even as knowledgeable hikers who were well aware of the risks of hiking with Benz on as temperatures ticked upward, the Lopezes found themselves tending to an overheating dog not long after they set off on the trail.

“When we started the hike, it was between 80 and 90 degrees, but there was plenty of breeze and shade, so we felt that it was OK to start,” said Omar. “As we started the ascent, the woods ended and we found ourselves on an exposed hill. The temperature just shot up.”

A mile into the hike, the Lopezes noticed Benz displaying signs of heat exhaustion. He became sluggish, so the couple gave him a little water and decided to head back down. After a short distance, Benz stopped walking completely and just lay down on the trail.

Omar carried the 95-pound dog to a shady spot below a tree to cool him down and applied water to his belly, chest and paws — the body parts that help regulate a dog’s temperature. When Benz continued to refuse to walk, the couple relied on the emergency harness they bring on all hikes to carry him back down to the car.

Thanks to knowledge and emergency preparation efforts, Omar Lopez knew exactly what to do when his German shepherd Benz began to display signs of heat exhaustion on a hot day in Leavenworth. Lopez also had a rescue harness handy that he used to carry Benz down to the car. (Courtesy of Omar Lopez)
Thanks to knowledge and emergency preparation efforts, Omar Lopez knew exactly what to do when his German shepherd Benz began to display signs of heat exhaustion on a hot day in Leavenworth. Lopez also had a rescue harness handy that he used to carry Benz down to the car. (Courtesy of Omar Lopez)
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Omar began hiking with a rescue harness after working with the search and rescue team. “A lot of times people abandon their dogs because they can’t carry them down, or when they go in search of help,” he said.  

Many dog owners are eager to hit the trails as soon as the weather changes. But hiking without proper preparation and knowledge of the potential risks could result in a trail emergency with your dog. Knowing how to handle urgent situations, provide treatment and recognize the signs of distress in your dog can help prevent potential crises.

“The risks can be lowered through taking a pet first-aid class, taking first-aid supplies for your pet as well [as yourself], and remembering that your dog needs conditioning as much as the human with it,” said Michaela Eaves, public information officer for the Washington State Animal Response Team (WASART), a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that responds to disaster and emergency situations for domestic livestock and companion animals.

The most common calls the group receives are weather-related, due to lack of conditioning, and for dogs that have fallen over cliffs or down slopes too steep to climb back up.

“Dogs that live in mostly urban environments have no reason to doubt the ground will exist as they jump through a shrub, so they will literally run off the cliff or end up on a weak point that crumbles beneath them,” Eaves said.

A simple solution to keeping your dog from falling over cliffs is to keep them on a leash. 

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“It’s a good idea to keep your dog on a leash, not only because of wildlife, but it’s also pretty common for dogs sprinting through the woods to be impaled by sticks or get twigs and sticks in their ears,” said Larry Fosnick Davis, former vice president of WASART, and vice president of Metro Dog Seattle, a dog day care center that offers first-aid classes for dog owners, including an “Off the Grid” course that covers trip planning, evacuation and equipment improvisation.

Other common trail injuries include cut paws from rocks, allergic reactions from bug bites and bee stings, ingestion of poisonous plants, and sprains, according to Dr. Jeff Dahl, a retired veterinarian who practiced at Mukilteo Veterinary Hospital and who is a WASART board member.

Bo Compton, a licensed veterinary technician at Animal Emergency Care in Bellingham, said waterborne diseases like giardia and leptospirosis are on the rise from dogs drinking from lakes, rivers and puddles. 

“Standing water is a really high-risk environment for the contagions,” Compton said. He recommends that dog owners consider the leptospirosis vaccination to minimize the risk of contraction.

Fosnick Davis stressed the importance of having a good relationship with your veterinarian and discussing your adventurous lifestyle together.

Here are a few tips for avoiding trail emergencies with your pup:

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Know what to bring in a first-aid kit for dogs

Dr. Dahl recommends carrying the following in your dog’s first-aid kit:

  • Nonstick pads, such as Telfa pads
  • Saline solution
  • Silver nitrate sticks to stop bleeding quick, as torn nails are common trail injuries
  • An emergency muzzle and knowledge of how to use one

Additional items could include Benadryl for allergic reactions to things like bee stings, or Rimadyl, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for through-hikers. Be sure to talk to your vet about dosage for any medications and never give your dog ibuprofen or aspirin, which can cause stomach problems like ulcers and erosions.

Fosnick Davis suggests keeping several first-aid kits on hand: A pocket kit for dog walks, a compact-sized kit for hiking and backpacking, and then a full-sized kit to keep in your car or at home. Metro Dog has suspended in-person first-aid courses for the time being, but will offer them online this spring.

Additionally, noting the phone number and location of the nearest veterinary clinic — including an emergency animal hospital — before you head out is a good practice.

Jen Sotolongo, the author of this story, learned the importance of bringing a jacket for her dog, Sitka, while on a backpacking trip at Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains. As unseasonably chilly weather left him shivering at camp in between hikes, she offered him her own sleeping bag during the day. (Jen Sotolongo)
Jen Sotolongo, the author of this story, learned the importance of bringing a jacket for her dog, Sitka, while on a backpacking trip at Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains. As unseasonably chilly weather left him shivering at camp in between hikes, she offered him her own sleeping bag during the day. (Jen Sotolongo)

Bring the 10 essentials for you and your dog

Many of these items will overlap, but there are some dog-specific pieces that you’ll need to add. For dogs, this includes adapting your personal first-aid kit to include dog-specific items, or just bringing one that is designed for canines.

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Other items include:

  • Poop bags 
  • Inexpensive booties in case of torn paw pads
  • For longer hikes or those with heavier dogs, consider carrying a rescue harness that can handle heavier dogs and that build up around the dog to minimize movement to injuries, like the Fido Pro
  • Extra food
  • Enough water for your dog
  • A light-up collar or light that attaches to the collar
  • Identification with your contact information
  • Lightweight dog bed or jacket

Know the weather

Veterinarians and WASART frequently see dogs for heat exhaustion and burned paw pads during the summer months. Check the weather and know the signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Excessive panting
  • Heavy drooling and/or thick saliva
  • Red or pale gums and tongue
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Vomiting

Different breeds handle the heat differently. Brachycephalic dogs like pugs and Boston terriers can be highly susceptible to heat exhaustion due to their short airways. Northern breeds, like Malamutes and Samoyeds, need to acclimate to the heat gradually.

In the winter, ice can cut paw pads and dogs with longer fur can build snowballs — painful ice balls that get stuck in between their paws. Well-fitting dog booties and paw wax like Musher’s Secret can help prevent ice balls and cuts.

Condition your dog to exercise

It’s true that dogs seem like they have boundless energy and can just pick up and go for a 15-mile hike right off the couch, but like humans, they need to build up their endurance. “Dogs don’t complain or show pain or fatigue like humans do,” Eaves said. “For them, they go until they are done.”

When Omar and Luz Lopez arrived back at the car with Benz last summer, they slowly cooled his body before putting him into the air-conditioned car and heading home.

Omar said that preparation and knowing exactly what to do in an emergency situation kept them calm and on-task when Benz required medical attention. The Lopezes regularly practice familiarizing Benz with their Fido Pro harness and receiving first-aid care at home.

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Had they not gone out prepared, the situation could have ended differently. Thanks to regular training for both humans and dog, Benz had recovered fully by the time they left the parking lot.

“Accidents happen and there are a lot of things we can do as dog owners to prepare in case of an emergency,” said Omar. “You always have to be ready to act in the case of an emergency.”

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