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.
Recall is probably the most essential skill required of all dogs on the trail. It allows you to keep your dog out of everything from general mischief to potentially dangerous situations. The “stay” or “wait” command is great, and highly useful, but you should ALWAYS carry a leash while hiking and should be able to tie down your dog if necessary.
So for building and proofing trail recall, I would determine what are going to be your dogs biggest distractions. It could be wildlife, other dogs, people, water, or even just the general smell of the trail. Start recall training near what’s least distracting for your dog, avoiding the hardest distractions at first. For example, my dog Breezy is less distracted by dogs and people than by wildlife and scent trails. So when I know she had seen a squirrel or smelled something super interesting, we would simply move on and I wouldn’t ask her to train in those moments. It would be like someone trying to tell you a story on a roller coaster. Your brain is too caught up in the moment to properly process what they’re telling you, even though they are right next to you.
Once your dog has mastered the recall among easy distractions, start progressing to more and more difficult situations until you really feel that reliability starting to build. Remember to also be building the distance between you and your dog while doing this training.
My personal goal is for Breezy to come EVERY time I call her (note: goal, not reality. Training is a never ending process!) This goal not only requires Breezy to have a foolproof understanding of what “come” means, but also requires me to read and know Breezy well enough to only ask this of her in instances I think she’ll succeed. I like this method of training because it takes a lot of the pressure off the dog and puts it on the owner.
Off Leash Heel
Another critical skill every trail dog should have is an off leash heel. I use this in a huge number of situations on the trail, it’s really fun to train and practice, and let’s be honest, it looks super impressive!
The first handy scenario is passing wary hikers on the trail. Believe it or not, not everyone loves dogs. It doesn’t matter how friendly your dog is, because it won’t matter to the person who doesn’t want to meet them. Luckily, most people love dogs, giving your friendly pooch plenty of opportunities to say hello.
The second scenario I will use an off leash heel in is when passing people with dogs who are ON leash. This seems like a no-brainer to me, but I see people breaking this rule all the time. What’s worse, I see them BLAMING the on leash dog if a bad situation ensues. Whether that dog is reactive, doesn’t have a reliable recall, or is simply in training, please respect that dog owner enough to pass as if your dog was on leash as well.
There are a ton of other scenarios in which an off leash heel comes in handy. Maybe there’s a lot of poison oak on either side of the trail and you’d rather your dog not romp through it then jump all over you. Maybe you’re near the end of your hike and there’s a muddy river you’d rather they didn’t go jump in just before you put them in the car. Maybe you’re hiking along a single track with a steep drop off and your dog likes to run up and down the trail and doesn’t know how big he is… You get the idea. Whatever the scenario, an off-leash heel can be an efficient alternative to recalling your pup and putting them back on leash.
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.