If you’re a nature lover, there’s nothing more exciting than an outdoor adventure, and hiking with your dog is a great way to explore and get some exercise in the process. Some breeds are naturally perfect hiking companions, but as long as you tailor the distance and terrain to your pet’s abilities, almost any dog can join you on the trail. However, to ensure a successful hike, it’s important to train your dog before you head out.
Basic obedience, as well as trail-specific skills, will keep your canine companion safe and help you to respect nature and your fellow hikers.
Loose Leash Walking
Common cues like sit and stay will help keep your dog under control during a hike, but as most areas require dogs to remain leashed, don’t underestimate the value of teaching your dog to walk politely on leash. It’s not fun or safe if your dog drags you over uneven ground and around trees. You don’t have to keep your dog in heel position, but your dog should keep pace with you rather than pull on the leash.
When you teach your dog loose leash walking, start in a quiet environment like inside the house or around the backyard. Only start distraction training when your dog is happily walking at your pace. Add distractions one at a time starting with low-level diversions like somebody walking in the distance. Then slowly increase the distractions until your dog can handle animals crossing your path or other people walking by.
Walking your dog down the sidewalk is much different than weaving between trees or hiking over rocky ground. Your two legs can have a tough time matching pace with your dog’s four with these added obstacles. Therefore, it’s helpful to teach your dog pacing cues. A cue like “easy” or “whoa” can tell your dog to slow down which is helpful when you’re struggling with rough terrain. Conversely, a cue like “let’s go” or “mush” can tell your dog to speed up. Teach these cues during your daily walks by giving the cue and then changing your pace. Reward your dog when they adjust to keep up with you.
To help your dog handle distractions on the trail, practice focus work like watch me (when your dog makes eye contact with you) and touch (when your dog presses their nose to the palm of your hand). These behaviors allow you to control where your dog is looking. For example, if a skunk appears on the trail or another hiker approaches, you can redirect your dog’s focus before they rush the skunk or approach the hiker. Ask your dog to look at you with a “watch me” cue or ask for a nose touch and hold your hand such that your dog must turn their head away from the distraction. Once you have your dog’s attention, they’re far more likely to listen.
As with loose leash walking, build distractions into your focus work. First, train your dog to touch or look at you when there is nothing else going on. Then slowly add other activities like a ball rolling past or another person running. If you teach your dog that attending to you is more valuable than watching the world go by, they will happily turn away to earn their reward.
Despite your best intentions, your dog can still get into trouble on a hike. There are dangerous plants like toxic mushrooms, garbage left behind by other hikers, and animal waste. You don’t want your dog eating something that could make them sick. If you see the hazard before your dog, you can use your focus cues, but chances are your dog will smell many of these things before you see them. So, be prepared with safety cues that tell your dog to leave something alone or drop it from their mouth.
“Leave it” can be life saving. It tells your dog they can’t have something. Be sure your dog understands “leave it” applies to anything, from a chipmunk in a tree to an animal carcass. If you train this cue with a free-choice technique and pair it with a “take it” cue, you will encourage your dog to leave things voluntarily and instead wait for permission. Always reward your dog with something more enticing than what you asked them to leave.
In contrast, “drop it” is used when your dog already has something in their mouth. You never know what they might discover in the underbrush or behind a log, so you want to ensure they will drop what they find rather than eat it. To encourage your dog to voluntarily give up items, never forcibly take anything from their mouth unless it’s an emergency. Instead, trade for something of higher value.
It’s also essential you train a rock-solid recall. If your dog slips their collar or you accidentally drop the leash, then off they go. You can only keep your dog safe if you can see them. Plus, you don’t want to risk your dog getting lost in the wilderness. To be sure your dog will reliably come when called, never punish them after you call them. That can even be as simple as leaving the park. You don’t want to teach your dog that coming to you can have negative consequences. It also helps to make recall training a game with activities like hide-and-seek or hot potato between several people.
How to Know if Your Dog is Ready and/or Able to Be Off Leash
In many hiking areas, you need to keep your dog leashed for safety and to minimize their impact on the environment. However, if you are allowed to hike with your dog off-leash, be sure your dog is ready for that type of freedom, otherwise, they can run off, disturb wildlife, bother other hikers, or scare other dogs.
Only allow your dog off leash if they are under your verbal control with the skills above. You need to know you can keep them within your sight, prevent them from getting into danger with a spoken cue alone, and recall them to you no matter what else is happening in the vicinity.