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  • Kristen VanNess

Trail Tails: A Guide for Hiking with Your Dog

Heading up the dirt trail, you see your dog trot ahead of you and stop to look around. You turn and see a herd of deer take off through the trees. Your dog then turns to look at you. As you catch up, he resumes walking at your side.

That’s the hike many people imagine. Instead, you might have your dog lunging at wildlife, trying to play with other dogs you pass, or even barking at people. He might be pulling you left and down to a creek. Then he’s lunging to the right and pulling into poison ivy. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Start Training at Home

While you may want to go straight to the trail for the best outcomes, start your walking training at home and in your neighborhood. The familiar environments may be a better starting place for your dog. Visit our leash walking series for some general training help. Once your dog has a strong foundation, then we can move to other environments.

Pick the Right Spot

Instead of planning a 5 mile loop, choose a quiet park with wider trails. Head out from your car and go just a short distance, 20’ - 100’ from the trailhead or car, then back to your starting point. Repeat this a few times. Reward your dog for good walking and pause if he starts pulling you or gets over-excited. If it is going well, then go 200’ down the trail and back. Repeat this a few times and build from there.

The advantage of starting small is that repeating in a few areas removes the novelty and extreme excitement. This also allows us to return to the car if he’s had too much. It’s easier to turn around when you’re 50’ away from the trailhead than if you’re 2 miles from the car.

Additional Trail Considerations

No matter how friendly or well-trained your dog is, other dogs are not. Be aware of the trails you use and the tight areas. This might mean trying a new route without your dog to learn more about the trails. Avoid areas that are narrow for extended periods. You want enough space to move off to the side to allow a nervous or unfriendly dog to pass without disturbing the plants. Keep in mind the space that you may need for your dog, especially if the other dog may be unfriendly.

Some trails have areas that are very slippery or are next to a steep cliff. These are not typically good options when walking a dog on a leash. All it takes is a little excitement, and the situation could get dangerous for people or dogs.

Walking vs. Exploring

Some dogs are very strong, and we should always have them walking by our sides when on a leash. For other dogs, it may be appropriate sometimes to let your dog pull and explore more, especially while hiking.

You must make the distinction clear to your dog. Some families use cue words to tell a dog if he should be exploring or walking side by side. Others use equipment changes, such as a sled-dog style back attachment harness for exploration walks and switching the leash to the collar or front ring when it’s time to walk side by side.

Strong dogs may need a sniff or bathroom break. You can prompt your dog to take a sniff/bathroom break while you stand still. This lets your dog explore but prevents them from pulling to new ground. Once the break is over, encourage your dog back to your side and resume your hike.

Passing and Being Passed

You can practice this on a bike path or sidewalk before trying it on a trail. Move off to the side of a trail or path when someone approaches. If your dog is excited, move 10’ away or more. If your dog is focused, you may choose to stay closer. Reward your dog for holding still. Some dogs do better with a sit, while others prefer to stand. Reward as rapidly as needed while the person passes. Then, resume your walk. Note that some dogs end up like a coiled spring and are ready to pounce - this is a sign you may need more distance for success.

There are other times when you may need to do the passing. Look for opportunities to practice this in other locations. Find someone sitting on a park bench or standing still to take a phone call. Pass at a distance where your dog can easily move with you. Reward as you go.

We hope these tips will help you and your dog hit the trails. Have fun and let us know if you have more questions!


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