Hiking with Dogs

One of my absolute favorite things is a nice long hike in the mountains with my dogs, and I know I’m not alone in this.  While hiking recently I witness several dogs that for one reason or another were not quite prepared to be doing the activity their humans were asking them to do, and it got me thinking about what it is that makes a great hiking companion and how some dog owners are falling short in this department.

First, your dog should have some proper gear.  This might involve booties (I’m planning on some of these for Idgie when winter hits) if you’re hiking on rough terrain or snow/ice, a backpack if you need to share the load (though you should really be sure your dog is physically able to carry her own stuff), or just what I call the “standard” hiking getup: back attachment harness, ID tags, and a waist-attached leash.

Yes, a harness really is what your dog should be wearing, especially if your dog is to remain leashed during your hike.  It is unfair to allow the dog to crank themselves around on a neck collar or head halter for that long period of time.  Harnesses add some safety into the mix, too.  I have lifted Idgie out of tough spots by her harness more than once.  This harness receives my highest recommendation for hiking, in case you were wondering.  Plus, they can help pull you up those steep climbs if they’re properly harnessed!  If you use a front-connection no-pull harness, consider a back-connection harness for hikes.  The front-connection style typically restricts shoulder movement more than I am comfortable with, and if your leash is in fact connected on the front you are restricting the dog’s shoulders even more.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I think there are a few cues or skills your dog should be fluent in.  A less geeky way to say this is you should train your dog to respond to a few words or phrases.  The four cues I find essential on hikes are a recall cue, a distance sit cue, a passing cue, and a pull-over cue.

The recall is self-explanatory and pretty much everyone knows they need it, it’s just that few people acutally take the time to properly teach and reinforce it.  You may only need one on hikes if your dog is going to be off-leash, but I would argue that you need one anyway because there will be a time when your leash fails you.  If you put in the effort to train a superb recall, you will be proud of what your dog can do and will love having him off leash.  For example, yesterday on Idgie’s hike I called her off of a little black mountain squirrell.  Mid-chase.  I try hard to follow the excellent advice of Kathy Sdao, “never give a cue with your fingers crossed,” but in that moment the words, “Idgie, come!” fell out of my mouth just as I realized she had seen the critter and, miraculously, she came.  You can bet I made a huge fuss over her after that and then I promptly released her to chase that squirrel.  In the same hike I saw her bolting toward a rushing river with violent white rapids, I called her, she spun on a dime and ran back to me.  Potential crisis averted.  I have also called her off of elk, deer, other dogs, dead fish, roads, and other potential bad things while on hikes.  Do the work and train the recall, it’s the biggest piece of advice I have for you.

The distance sit (or down) cue is not one that many people think of but I love it and use it frequently.  On a camping trip this past Spring Idgie spotted a moose, long before I did.  I noticed my dog tense up and stare into the snowy woods, emitting a low growl.  I calmly asked her to sit, she did.  I walked up to her and just as I clipped on her leash the moose wandered out of the trees, crossed our campsite, and moved on.  Of course the obvious question here is, “why not just use that dynamite recall you were just talking about?”  The answer is had I asked Idgie to come to me in that moment I would be asking her to turn her back on something she found potentially threatening, thereby degrading her recall cue (and her trust in me)and lessening the liklihood of her response to the cue.  One of the rules of having a great recall is not calling your dog when she is unlikely to come, and that was one of those times.  But, a well-trained distance sit cue was easy for her to respond to (she did so in slow-motion, but it worked) and gave me what I needed (the ability to clip her leash on) without making her feel unsafe.

Finally, a good passing cue can make everyone’s lives much easier on a hike.  What’s a passing cue?  A word or phrase that tells my dogs to move on down the trail; to pass by something that is potentially interesting to them.  I say “go on” when we pass people, dogs, interesting smells (after they have been allowed to take in said smell, it is their hike too), wildlife, etc.  I use it more when they are on leash than when they are not because I need them to keep moving up the trail and stay ahead of me.  It basically means “keep moving, we aren’t stopping here.”  It is worthwhile to teach because it makes passing others on a narrow trail much simpler and everyone will appreciate your polite dogs that do not trip them, which brings me to my next point.

The ability to pull over and wait while bikes, horses, or dogs pass by is something I wish all dogs had.  If you drag your dog off the trail and physically keep him there while others pass by, this doesn’t count.  My dogs are used to pulling over; we never attempt to pass horses or cyclists (they can’t pull over as easliy as we can and it’s just too dangerous to pass) and because of my dogs’ particular issues we rarely try to pass people with dogs.  I use a hand target to guide my dogs off the trail, they perform a sit-stay while others pass by, and then we’re on our way.  I have to say it makes my heart sing when other people with dogs do this for us, but it isn’t often.  Probably because everyone else’s dogs are “normal.” 🙂

In case you’re wondering, all of these things are taught deliberately with positive reinforcement.  I do not expect my dogs to just “figure it out” and I pay them generously for their efforts.  I consider treats on a hike as essential as water.  When my dogs are learning I also bring a clicker.  I practice in easier environments when my dogs are puppies.  I reinforce their good behavior on hikes and it continues on in the next hike.  If you’d like to learn how I train any of these behaviors, you know where to find me.  Happy hiking!