Hitting the Trails with Your Dog

Hiking is a fun summer activity to do with your dog. Hiking trails give us a change of scenery, bring us to new destinations, and often times allows dogs to be off-leash. Your dog can set her own pace, sniff, and investigate to her heart's content, stop when she's tired, and burst into running whenever she likes. Dogs burn more energy during off-leash walks than on-leash ones because of the varying pace and sniffing. Dogs also tend to run out and investigate and then return to us to "check-in," so they cover more distance than we do while out. But, before you head down the trail with your dog free to roam and wander with you, be sure your dog has some obedience skills and manners, or a well-intended fun activity can quickly turn into a bad experience.

Training Preparations

Before going out on off-leash hiking trips, there are particular requirements that you should make sure your dog will do. These skills will help you and your dog have a better experience, have more fun, and be polite to others with whom you may be sharing the trail.

  • Walk with Manners: Your dog should be able to walk nicely beside you on and off-leash. This skill will help you to pass others pleasantly without incident.
  • Reliable Recall: Your dog must come to you when called to have off-leash privileges, or you might run into trouble with another dog (or animal) on the trail, or worse, you may lose your dog.
  • Sits on Cue: Another skill that helps when needing to pass others along the trail.
  • Leave It Cue: The Leave It cue for your dog needs to be reliable off-leash and at a distance. There may be things you will come across that you don't want your dog to put in his mouth, such as garbage, plants, poop, or dirty stagnant water. You can also use this cue for horses and bikers if you have worked with your dog on leaving those as well.
  • Wait on Cue: Your dog waits for you on cue. This is a great skill for your dog to have, so that he can venture ahead, but not too far ahead, and still stay within sight. Once your dog is far enough away, you can have him wait for you to catch up.
  • Frequent Check-Ins: Check-ins with your dog, where your dog is consistently looking for you and making eye-contact, is crucial. This way, you know your dog is staying aware of where you are.

Health and Safety Preparations

  • Physical Condition: Make sure that your dog is in the right physical condition for the trek and that he has no lameness or soreness. Age can also be a factor; the young and very old have more limitations than an adolescent and young adult dog. Make sure that your dog is healthy with a current vet check, and that includes having your vet gait your dog.
  • Parasite Protection: Yucky critters are everywhere and it is important to make sure that your dog is covered and protected from ticks, mosquitos, fleas, and other parasites they could pick up from brush and water.
  • Leash and Harness: Always have these two tools handy at all times. You never know when you may need them.
  • Water and First Aid Kit: It is important to have fresh, clean water for your dog so she doesn’t get dehydrated. Accidents happen so it is best to be prepared with a first aid kit just in case. Even a small thorn or pricker can put a hamper on fun plans.
  • Vaccinations: It is best to check with your vet and make sure that your dog is up-to-date with any necessary vaccinations, just to be sure.

Rules for the Trails

  • Rules and Expectations: Set rules and expectations for your dog and always make sure that your dog is staying within sight of you. These rules should also plan for manners when encountering other people and dogs on the trail. One of those rules should be if someone is walking their dog on a leash, you should not allow your dog to approach. There could be a very good reason why their dog is on leash!
  • Manners: Do not let your dog run up to other dogs or people, even if your dog is people and dog-friendly. Not everyone wants to be greeted by another dog, and if they have a dog, it may not be dog-friendly. Always have your dog come back to you and use heel/by me or a sit-stay for other parties to pass.
  • Stay on the Trail: It is important to stay on the path not only to maintain the natural habitat, but also to keep you and your dog safe. Foxtails, poison oak or ivy, thorny bushes and weeds and potentially dangerous wildlife (such as snakes) can be hidden in overgrowth areas and dampen your day if you or your dog have a run in with one.
  • Indigenous Wildlife: Know the area and what lives there. Depending on the area, snakes, bears and mountain lions can be a real concern. Be aware, and hike safe!
  • No Chasing Wildlife: In many states, if your dog is caught chasing wildlife, you can be slapped with a hefty fine. If you are on ranch land and your dog chases stock, ranchers may shoot your dog on sight. But, besides all that, if your dog takes off and chases a squirrel, or a deer, or a duck, he could keep chase for a long distance, get lost, and you may never see him again!

Training Tips for Off-Leash Trail Hiking

Don’t be too hasty to start walking with your dog off-leash. Tragic accidents have happened because of unpredicted situations and dogs were off-leash. No dog is 100% reliable with obedience, so there is risk involved with off-leash walking. There are some prerequisites your dog must have before earning this privilege, and you need to have your dog under verbal control.

Play Games

Every time you go outside, for a walk, or hit the trails, play games with your dog, on and off leash. Games that reinforce concepts of proximity (being close to you), orientation (turning to you), focus (always being aware of where you are) and eye-contact, and impulse control (having self control around distractions). If you do this a lot, your dog will default to these behaviors and manage himself on his own, and you will have to do very little cuing. Additionally, it supercharges your time together and build and incredible relationship with your pup.

Have a Reliable Recall

Training your dog to come to you when called—also known as recall—is the most important lesson you can teach your dog. If she responds quickly and consistently when you call her, she can enjoy freedoms that other dogs cannot, or should not. She can play in the dog park, hike with you off-leash (where permitted) and stay out of trouble in most situations. Even if you never intend to let her romp off-leash, accidents happen. Collars break or can slip off the dog’s head, leashes can slip out of your hands, and gates or doors are inadvertently left open. In these unexpected situations, having a reliable recall is invaluable.

For off-leash trail hiking, a recall is essential. While hiking along the trail, practice it often, by calling your dog to you before he gets out of sight from you or too far away, rewarding her for following the cue, and then letting her back out to explore again. Be sure to have some very tasty treats or your dog’s favorite toy on hand. Individual pieces of string cheese are a great reward because they’re conveniently wrapped in plastic, and most dogs find them delicious. If your dog does not reliably come when called, resist the urge to let her romp off-leash. The outdoors is full of amazing smells, interesting sights, and fun things to chase, and dogs can get distracted and wander off and get lost easily.

Practice Recall and Release. Bring along some delicious treats. Periodically call your dog to you, give her a treat and then release her to explore again. This exercise teaches her that coming when called usually means she’ll get two good things—a treat and a chance to keep enjoying her off-leash romp.

Many dogs learn to avoid reaching hands when off-leash. Who can blame them? Getting “caught” usually means that the fun’s over. Practice petting and touching your dog’s collar under her chin or harness at her chest, giving her a treat at the same time, and then immediately releasing her again. That way, she won’t learn to duck away when you need to catch her.

Teach Loose Leash Walking and Reinforce Check-Ins

Hikes are far more enjoyable when dogs have a little more freedom to see the sights and smell the smells. If your dog doesn't yank you around, there's no harm in letting her have some fun on a walk! If your dog doesn't yet know how to walk politely on a leash and still pulls, you can use a head collar/head halter or a no-pull harness. They don't take the place of training, but they are great tools that can help in alleviating most pulling until your dog's training is complete.
When teaching your dog to walk nicely on leash, remember to reinforce "check-ins." This is when you reward your dog for looking at you. In the beginning, you may have to cue a look, but you eventually want to reward your dog for doing it on her own. Capture those moments when your dog looks at you on her own and pay her, so you create a good habit. This is an essential component for off-leash walks, so your dog is frequently looking for you and following you wherever you go, whether your dog is in front of you or behind you.
Do not use long lines or a retractable leash while hiking on trails. These tools limit your level of control with your dog and can easily get wrapped around trees, tangled in bushes or fallen logs, and worst of all, catch around another person's leg and cause painful rope burn. Retractable leashes also have an amputation warning on the packaging. It is best to leave those tools at home and use a regular nylon or leather leash.

Teach Your Dog to Walk on the Path

If you first start trail hiking with your dog on a leash, it is easy to teach your dog about staying on the path. Use loose leash walking and give your dog plenty of room to sniff. The moment your dog wanders off the path, cue your dog to come back to you by patting your leg and reward when your dog is back on the path and next to you. You can even begin practicing on sidewalks if hiking trails are more of a trip for you. Give this behavior its own cue such as "Path" or whatever you choose that makes sense for you. Make sure the cue is different than any other cue you have taught your dog. Mark the behavior when your dog's paws are back on the path. Animals naturally tend to follow well-marked trails, but dogs will also wander off if they smell something interesting or catch movement. Once your dog is good at following your cue while on the leash, you can then practice it off-leash.

Teach Wait

Decide on how far ahead or behind you will allow your dog to be before she is too far away. That is determined by how well she will respond to cues at a distance. Once your dog reaches that threshold of distance, you will cue your dog to wait, or stop, and not venture any further ahead until you catch up. If your dog returns to you on the Wait cue, that is fine, it is not a stay cue. It is as if you drew an imaginary line on the path for your dog to not cross until you say so, or until you catch up, and cue your dog to continue walking. This helps to keep your dog in sight while hiking, so you know she is safe. Be sure to reinforce and reward your dog for when she starts to look back and wait for you on her own, thereby strengthening a good behavior into a good habit.

Teach Sit (and Stay)

While hiking with your dog, you may encounter cyclists, horseback riders, and people who don't like dogs. Move your dog off to the side of the trail and cue a sit. It's the polite thing to do. If your dog doesn't yet know how to stay, you can hold the collar or distract your dog by feeding her a steady stream of tiny treats until they pass.

Work on sit-stays beside the trail when other people, horses, or dogs aren't nearby to distract your dog. Give your dog praise and treats for good performances. This will solidify her training and make it more likely that she'll listen when you are on the trail, and there are distractions.

Teach Heel (I use a loose heel "By Me” for trails which is about close proximity to me)

Sometimes you need to pass things - people, bikers or joggers, people fishing or another group with or without a dog, and it is not appropriate for our dog to go up to them and say hello. Some people don't mind saying hello to a friendly dog who has manners and doesn't jump up, but others do not want to be bothered. It is good to have a cue to let your dog know she needs to stay close to you until a situation is passed before going off and exploring again. In these circumstances, if your dog knows how, you can have her heel. I like to use a loose heel and save the true heel for specific situations where I need that ultimate focus from my dog. This is where "By Me," a skill you can use to train your dog to be right near you and follow your every move without having to formally heel, can come in handy.
The By Me  (loose heel) option for my dogs does not require an intense focus on me and only me and walking right next to me with the front legs of my dog aligned with mine. For some situations, a heel would be appropriate, but for other conditions, I like to have my dog near me but not necessarily in a perfect heel position. The By Me cue allows my dog to look around still, be within my reach, and under my control.

Teach Leave It

Like coming when called, the "Leave it" skill can be useful in many situations and can even save your dog's life. "Leave it" is a phrase that you can use when you want your dog to leave something alone. After your dog learns what "Leave it" means, you can tell her to avoid things that might hurt her, such as trash or debris on the ground, fishing hooks left near fishing spots, drinking from a puddle or pond of stagnant water, and poop or dead animals. You can also use the "Leave it" skill to redirect your dog's attention when she notices other things that might get her into trouble, like unfriendly dogs, bikes or horses, or people who don't want to be bothered.

If your dog doesn't know how to "leave it" yet, tasty treats, like chicken, will come in handy if she picks up something she shouldn't have. Use the treats as a trade or drop for any "treasures" she finds. You will want to work on teaching your dog the leave it cue, first on a leash, and then off-leash so you can have your dog avoid potentially harmful things for the future.

Hitting the Trail for the First Time

Now that your dog has proven that she will follow your cues, on and off-leash, and in more distracting outside environments, you are ready to hit the trail. I like to initially test my dog first and practice along the trail with the cues while my dog is on the leash, just in case. Once your dog has gotten over the initial excitement of the hike and is following cues on leash, you can let her off-leash and continue to practice while you are walking. Remember that your first few hikes with your dog are setting precedence for future hikes, so be sure to set clear boundaries and rules in the beginning and practice often. Once you and your dog become more seasoned hiking buddies, it won't be necessary to practice as often, and you both can just enjoy your hikes because your dog is following the rules you have implemented - it is your routine together.

Play Puppy Ping Pong: One of the first exercises I play with my dogs when they are learning to trail hike with my family and me is puppy ping pong. The person in the front of the group calls and rewards the dog. Then the person in the back calls and rewards the dog. The game bounces the dog back and forth and staying with the group rather than wandering too far out in front. It reinforces that staying within the group is the best place to be and helps to keep wandering at a minimum.

Consider the Your Dog's Age

For young, high energy and excitable dogs, you have to be more on top of setting rules and boundaries. Don't ever hesitate to put your dog back on leash if she is not following your rules. If you don't, she will learn to blow you off, and you will have an out of control dog on your hands. I also like to keep my young high energy dogs on leash for the beginning part of the hike until they have calmed down a bit. This way they burn off the edge of energy while I still have control, and they are far better at listening when they are settled and slightly tired.

For young dogs, hiking is a good socialization experience. They may come across new obstacles they haven't seen before. Remember to give them time to explore and conquer the environment so they have a good experience and will enjoy hiking with you. Puppies need to be fully vaccinated before going out on hikes. And, always have your puppy on leash. Puppies lack the impulse control to be consistent in following cues. They also get distracted very quickly, and it would be heartbreaking to lose her simply because you expected too much too soon.

Practice and Stay Consistent

Set rules and boundaries from the very beginning and practice them until your dog learns the routine and knows what is expected. Be consistent with your rules and be ready to reinforce them - reward your dog for following them, and follow through with consequences for not following them (back on leash). Freedom is a privilege that must be earned. This way, down the road, you will be able to relax and enjoy off-leash hikes with your dog, and your dog will always be with you, safe and sound, with good manners. You will be able to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of nature together. 

Quick Tips:

  • Be sure to have your dog well-trained on verbal obedience cues and to reliably come when called before you give her off-leash privileges.
  • Dogs should be allowed off-leash only in safe areas where regulations permit.
  • Your dog must not be dog reactive or people reactive. There is nothing worse than walking along a trail and having your dog bound towards another person or their dog. You do not want your dog to facilitate a confrontation. Don't be that person!
  • Your dog must be under control, even when off-leash. Obedience is going to be key - your dog should not approach other people or other dogs unless given permission by you. If you do not have control over your dog under these circumstances, hook your dog back on leash when approaching another party, which will allow you and your dog to pass people and other dogs without incident. Unhook your dog again when enough distance is between you and the other party to avoid interaction. You do not want your dog to take off and chase wildlife either. Many states have hefty fines for owners whose dogs chase wildlife. You also don't want your dog to get lost.
  • As you would during on-leash activities, be careful not to overestimate your dog's abilities. If she seems stiff, sore, and exhausted for hours after exercising, you'll want to scale back next time.