Hi! I’m Gemma – I own and run HikerHounds, a dog walking and apparel company in Belfast. I grew up near Moira where myself and my brother would spend hours wandering the countryside or on long weekends visiting the family farm in Fermanagh. I’ve always had a crazily strong affinity for animals and we always had them around growing up - from dogs to rabbits and every kind of pet rodent - We once had a very intense family funeral for a beloved gerbil.
I went to school in Lisburn and then went on to study Fashion and Textile Art at the University of Ulster. I tried out a few different career paths including museum work, lots of barista work then eventually care-work, each enjoyable in their own way but I always had the feeling that I hadn’t quite found my ‘thing.’
Myself and my now husband (still sounds weird) had our first dog together around this time - a very needy and much loved lurcher called Onyx, who was being left into a dog daycare while we were out doing long hours. All I did was talk about Onyx and worry about him and wait for days off to go on long walks and adventures together. I eventually realised I needed to make some big decisions about what made me happy and what I wanted to do, to find my ‘thing’ and go for it.
I’ve always had the need to be creative since leaving art college – looking back it gave me an amazing platform to create, I never thought at the time I would so practically employ my textile art degree - I remember having a few leads break on me as Onyx was a strong dog and we were out with him a lot in unfamiliar places so wanted something sturdy. Our love of the Mourne Mountains and rock climbing gave us the idea to use mainly climbing rope for making leads and collars.
Simultaneously I had just taken my first tentative steps into the dog walking world – it felt, and still feels like an adventure… always exploring and learning while having the best time, this is really what we wanted for our clients or ‘pack’, not to fulfil a simple need and dander around the same streets, but to enrich the dogs we walk, on adventurous, explorative hikes – HikerHounds was beginning!
This focus on group adventures, utilising the amazing forest parks and beaches that we are lucky to live near is at the core of our business, and our lives. We get to know our regulars really well and cater to their needs to keep everyone safe and happy. We work so hard to understand and bond with our clients and our pack to make sure we can give them the best. Dogs, like us are so very different, it’s what makes them so amazing, learning and developing the skills and knowledge required to keep everyone safe and happy is a big commitment of ours.
You may have noticed when talking about Hiker Hounds I will unconsciously say ‘us’ or ‘our’. My husband and I only just married in July 2019 but we met over a decade ago, set up by our best friends. Colm has been there through every decision change, every difficult obstacle and has supported everything to do with stepping out on my own. That is why from the start it has been our venture. That is what makes HikerHounds unique, we are both so proud of it and each other. I even showed up to our wedding in the Hound Bus, decked out with ribbon and flowers and driven by my poor Dad. The back was then converted into a photo-booth! Colm could have left me to it but after clocking out of his own amazing career he puts on his HikerHounds hat and gets straight to it, I think this is so easy for him because being around dogs, being out in nature and being a part of that community here in Northern Ireland is our life, though it’s definitely hard work, it doesn’t actually always feel like work.
We now have 3 pups to call our own; Onyx, Honey and Iggy. All rescues, all mad and all we need! We are so lucky to live and work in the North Down area, enjoying our two favourite things, the forest and the coast, right on our doorstep. Owning a dog is a privilege and a licence to grab their lead and go off exploring and galavanting in nature and that’s what HikerHounds is all about. Redburn Forest Park, Cairn Wood & the entire North Down Coastal route are all top spots for a walk locally but I think our favourite has to be the Mournes. The feeling of working hard and scaling peaks with our pups by our side, rewarded with breathtaking views at the top, is like a mini break away from day to day life. We both love our jobs but think it’s important to get out and explore, the Mournes are majestic and offer something new time after time - there’s very little better to clear your mind for the week ahead like a good hike through the mountains. We typically like to undersell what we have here in Northern Ireland but we are fiercely proud of the stunning landscape we call home and are always keen to explore that next spot on the list.
If you are taking our advice and exploring new or remote areas with your canine companions I would always recommend to be prepared as much as possible, especially if you don’t know the area and may not have phone signal. I have a pet first aid kit kept in the van or a backpack, these are simple enough to put together and can keep you going until you reach a vet if needed. A collapsable water bowl that clips onto your bag is a favourite and always have water. If hiking in the mountains or scenic areas that may have stiles or obstacles a good sturdy harness on your dog is handy to help them over. Always be aware of livestock and how your dog reacts, some areas are on-lead only and it’s important to be respectful of that. Even the most reliable of dogs can spook or get lost so make sure they always have their ID tag on!
Whether your next adventure is following a passion, starting a scary new endeavour or climbing mountains, our advice would be to go for it, unashamedly.