How to Train Your Dog for Hiking
Hiking is a great way to spend quality time with your dog, making memories and strengthening your bond. But, as with any activity, there are potential risks that you and your dog may face along the way.
Common risks involved with outdoor travel include wildlife encounters (like coyotes or bears), rugged or unsafe terrain, poisonous plants, and other environmental hazards. As a responsible dog owner, the best thing you can do is to learn how to train your dog for hiking before you hit the trails.
What does that mean? Are there specific commands that your dog needs to learn before hiking?
Let’s break down the skills your dog will need to be a safe and confident hiking companion and how to ensure your pup is prepared.
Good Leash Manners for the Trails
One of the most obvious behaviours to consider when training for hiking is how your dog acts when on a leash. Why? Leash manners can make or break your hiking experience.
Who wants to spend their entire hiking trip being dragged down the trail or fighting to get their dog under control?
Many different resources are available, teaching you how to train your dog to hike or walk on-leash. This includes a variety of different approaches.
We are firm believers in a positive reinforcement training approach. This means you teach your dog to behave on a leash the way you want them to act by rewarding the right choices, not by punishing them when they make the wrong choice.
Here is the process we followed for teaching our dogs good leash manners:
- Start by putting your dog on-leash and taking just 3 or 4 steps forward. If your dog begins to pull, stop, stand still, and wait for them to return to your side. Avoid pulling, jerking, or snapping the leash.
- The moment the leash goes loose again, acknowledge that your dog is making a good choice with a confident “yes” and a tasty reward.
- Repeat this process, rewarding each time to reinforce the desired behaviour.
- When your dog can walk 3 or 4 steps forward without pulling consistently, you can then try for 6, 10, 15, etc. Slowly working until you can confidently take your dog for a short walk without pulling.
- Try adding distractions. This could come in the form of people, cars driving past, or other dogs. You can do this by asking a friend to help, walking past you in your controlled environment, or walking in a location that will include distractions. If your dog starts to pull towards the distraction, stop and wait as you have been until the leash goes loose again.
Try to be patient throughout this process. Each time you add distance, stick with the new distance until your pup has no problem with that phase before moving on.
It is a process and does take some time. But investing your time into training your dog today will set you up for many enjoyable hikes and adventures with your dog by your side for years to come.
Obedience Commands for Safe Hiking
In addition to leash manners, there are a few other obedience commands that can prove helpful for a safe and enjoyable hiking trip with your dog.
These commands allow you to control the situation, even if your dog encounters something that could be dangerous, like poisonous plants, litter along the side of the trail, or wildlife.
The “Leave It” command is key for instructing your dog to ignore and avoid a situation before it happens. We have found this to be most important when encountering litter on the trail.
While we would LOVE to think that everyone is keeping the trail clean, occasionally, garbage that could make your dog sick is left behind.
To teach the “Leave It” command, follow these simple steps:
- Take a low-value treat and place it in your first. Allow your dog to sniff, lick and nose at your hand to try to get to the treat. The moment they stop trying or look away from your hand, acknowledge the moment with a clear “Yes” and offer a high-value treat reward.
- Repeat this process, rewarding with a high-value treat every time your dog shows they are leaving the treat in your fist alone. This will enforce the idea that ignoring the treat in front of them will lead to getting something even better.
- When your dog shows they understand what you want them to do, introduce the “Leave It” verbal command. Hold your fist out. When your dog goes to smell the fist, say “Leave It” and then mark the desired behaviour with a “Yes” and a high-value reward when your dog listens.
- Once your dog can confidently perform “Leave It” with a closed fist, try holding the treat with an open hand. If they move to take the treat, close your fist, stopping them from taking it. Repeat the command, rewarding when they leave it alone.
- Continue to increase the stakes. Place the treat on the floor and place your hand over it if they go to take it. Then do the same while standing, placing your foot on it to stop them if needed.
- When your dog obeys confidently with the treat sitting on the ground at your feet while standing, you can introduce distance by stepping away from the treat before calling them to you for the high-value treat or walking past the low-value treat before rewarding them with the high-value option for leaving it.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you didn’t see a piece of litter or another potentially dangerous object until after your dog has picked it up, the “Drop It” command is critical.
This command tells your dog to release whatever they have immediately, leaving it unless you say otherwise.
Here are the steps to teach the “Drop It” command:
- Select a low-value toy your dog likes to play with but isn’t overly excited about (not their favourite toy). Offer it to them and allow them to play with the toy for a bit.
- Hold out a high-value treat to offer your dog. When they drop the toy to take the treat, make the moment with a confident “Yes,” allowing them to take the treat while you take the toy and place it behind your back.
- Repeat this process, offering the toy, letting your dog play, then making a trade for a high-value treat. Your dog will start to recognize that giving up the toy results in them getting something better.
- When your dog reaches the point that they quickly drop the toy in exchange for the treat, introduce the “Drop It” verbal command. Repeat the exchange with the command to reinforce its connection.
- Give your dog the command without showing the treat, giving a confident “Yes” and revealing their reward when they drop the toy.
- Start to phase out the instant treat so that your dog obeys the command whether you have a treat ready in hand or not. To do this, give the command and mark the desired behaviour with a “Yes” when they drop the toy but wait a second before pulling out the treat. Slowly increase that time with each repetition.
When discussing how to train your dog for hiking, the recall command is always at the top of our list, even if you plan to keep your dog on a leash.
You never know when an emergency will arise, and you need to call your dog away from danger.
Leashes can break, running the risk of your dog getting lost. Or you may need to quickly remove your dog from a situation before it escalates to something serious, like encountering an off-leash dog or wildlife, like a bear.
To teach reliable recall, you must start small and work up to greater distances and possible distractions.
Here is the process we have used for training recall with our dogs:
- Choose a low-distraction area for your training, like in a closed room with no other people or pets. You will need your dog’s favourite toy or a treat for a reward. Take this reward out and show it to your dog. When they see it and come toward you, confidently say “Yes” and reward them.
- After repeating this a few times, introduce the command “Come” when your dog starts to move toward you. Be sure to still mark the desired behaviour with “Yes” and reward when they come to you.
- When your dog does this confidently, try the “Come” command without first showing the reward. When your dog responds appropriately and comes to you, hand over the reward. Repeat this until you see that they are responding as soon as they hear the command.
- Start to phase out the instant reward. Give the “Come” command, mark the desired behaviour with a confident “Yes,” and wait for a second before producing the reward.
- Increase the difficulty by adding distance. Start a couple of steps further away and give the command. Slowly increase the distance, repeating the process and praising your dog for responding by coming to you.
- Introduce distractions. Try practicing the command in your yard, where your dog can hear neighbourhood noises or stop during a walk and practice by going to the end of your dog’s leash and recalling them. Use a longline to allow you to practice in parks and other places while still maintaining control over your dog if they don’t respond as desired.
Training Your Dog to Hike Off-Leash
If off-leash adventures are on your radar, you may be curious about how to train your dog for hiking and whether that process differs from standard hiking preparation.
Removing the leash is a great way to give your dog the freedom to explore. But it also eliminates the safety net of having the leash to control your dog in an emergency, forcing you to rely on your dog’s obedience.
For this reason, you shouldn’t go off-leash on a public trail until your dog’s recall is SOLID.
Note: ONLY take your dog off-leash on a public trail if it is permitted. Make sure to check the rules for the area. For example, most Ontario Parks trails are for on-leash adventures.
Work on practicing and testing your dog’s recall in various controlled situations, including many distractions.
When you are confident it’s time to remove the leash, it’s still not time to run to the trails.
Practice off-leash in contained areas like a fenced park. It’s not uncommon for dogs to behave differently when first unleashed versus on the long line. This allows you to work through that transition in a safe space.
Introducing a Backpack to Your Dog
If you plan on having your dog carry a backpack with gear on your hikes, there are a few steps to take at home to set your pup up for success.
Dog backpack training or conditioning is the process of introducing the pack in a positive way.
Start by setting the pack out in your home and allow your dog to investigate it. Wait to try putting it onto your dog until you see they are comfortable around the pack without showing nervousness or anxiety.
When first introducing the pack to your dog, start by placing it on their back without fastening the buckles. Praise and reward to create a positive association.
Slowly work up to fitting the pack securely, taking your time and allowing your dog to dictate how quickly you move.
Before adding weight to your dog’s pack, take them hiking with the empty pack on. This is an opportunity to get used to the feeling of having the pack on while moving. It also allows you to note how the pack fits your dog and adjust where necessary.
Finally, introduce weight gradually to your dog’s pack from trip to trip. Don’t rush this. Building up the weight too quickly can put your dog at risk of injury.
If this is your first time hiking with a dog, the above information may seem like a lot. This isn’t meant to discourage you from including your best friend in your adventures. Quite the opposite…
We started this blog to empower people to enjoy outdoor travel with their pets.
BUT we want to make sure that our advice isn’t putting anyone at risk unnecessarily. This is why we have stressed the training and preparation elements so much.
Is this your first time learning how to train your dog for hiking? If so, were there any aspects of training that you hadn’t thought of?