Hiking is one of my favorite activities, luckily, it’s one of my dog’s favorites too. Training has always been a key component for me on the trails and has been a huge factor in establishing the bond I have with my dog, Breezy. Off leash hiking allows her to satisfy a ton of basic biological needs in a healthy way, like running, sniffing, rolling around in fun smells, digging, or otherwise expressing herself in a beautifully uninhibited way. It took a lot of hard work to get to where we are, but all that hard work has turned into trust, and on the trail, trust is essential.
Preparing for the Trail
Before you hit the trail, its super important to have a base level of training at home and around your neighborhood. For most dogs, hiking trails will be full of really enticing distractions. If you haven’t already click hear to learn about Two Important Trail Skills Every Dog Should Have. Expecting them to learn new things in that highly distracting scenario will be tough on you and unfair to them. Try to always start your training as easily as possible, and slowly increase the difficulty. This difficultly can be measured in how long you ask them to perform a behavior, the distance between you and the dog, and the distractions that are happening around the dog. Slowly testing and increasing each of these factors and only moving forward when your dog is comfortable helps you have more successful repetitions (aka MORE TREATS!) and helps your dog understand that training is fun, not frustrating. Whatever skills you’d like your pup to have on the trail, start practicing those skills all the time. Treats and verbal praise are great rewards for trail training, but don’t be afraid to be creative! If your dog is sniffing obsessively at a tree, you ask him to come and he does, a better reward than a treat might be immediately releasing him and getting super excited about heading back to that tree for more sniffs. This way your pup knows it’s not always choice between doing what he wants, and a treat he may or may not be hungry for.
Bringing the Right Tools for the Trail
Every dog is different and it’s up to you to determine the tools you’ll use to have a successful hike. The goal when selecting these tools is to maintain a safe level of control over your dog. This is about safety not only for you and your dog, but for everyone else on the trail. So, if you’re just starting out and your dog is really distracted by everything, maybe a 6′ leash and easy walk harness are the tools for you. As you make progress you can consider switching to a longer line and a different style harness. There are a ton of tools out there, and one important thing to keep in mind is how your dog feels about them. Whatever it is you use, if you make sure your dog is happy to have it on them, it will make hiking that much easier on you both. While hiking, Breezy is usually off leash, but if I ever bring out the leash and she is reluctant for me to put it on, I know we have to go back and recondition her to love the leash.
Keeping Things Cool
If your dog doesn’t go hiking often, they might get over excited and seemingly forget all the training they perform impeccably at home. For those cases, its really important to encourage your dog to cool down every so often. Simply stopping and waiting for them to relax can help that manic excitement decrease and should put your dog in a calmer state of mind. This is super important because dogs who get too excited and aren’t able to obey simple commands could easily overexert themselves. This could lead to heat exhaustion, injuries, or even worse, they could get lost. Breezy often needs to be leashed when we’re hiking in very hot conditions (which, to be honest, we usually just avoid all together). She simply cannot control her instincts to run and chase, and so I have to curb that over-excitement lest she push herself too hard. Stopping to settle down on the trail and asking for a couple basic commands is a great way to gauge how your dog’s mental state is. Doing this is a win win for you, as you’re exercising your dog both physically and mentally.
Managing Your Expectations
When all is said and done, its up to you to determine what you expect from your dog on the trail. For example, I’ve mentioned Breezy’s prey drive. For me, its a natural instinct, she isn’t catching and killing these animals, and she doesn’t chase animals large enough to get her in big trouble. So, I will sometimes TELL her to go chase things, then ask her to come back. This way I’m letting her embrace that natural instinct she has on my terms, and it makes it much easier to curb it when I have to. Sure she chases things on her own all the time, but I have a much greater ability to call her off when I’ve already allowed her let loose on my terms. On the other hand, Breezy used to think that when we reached our destination on the trail, that spot was now her territory and it was her job to protect that territory by growling/barking at intruders. For me, this behavior was not appropriate and we’ve worked really really hard to establish a new protocol of what happens when new hikers join us at our destination. Your dog could also love hiking “around the trail” rather than on it. This might mean through tall grass containing ticks, through prickly bushes that could scrape their eyes or bellys, or by snakes trying to have a nap under a log. To be fair to your dog, be consistent. Sometimes allowing them to do things and sometimes getting mad at them for doing the same things can be very confusing and frustrating for them. So, decide what behaviors are important to you, and when possible and safe, let your dog embrace behaviors that are important to them.
About the author: Julianne and her pup Breezy live in California and enjoy exploring the great outdoors. Check them out on Instagram to see their amazing adventures @breeze.e.bear