The 7 Essentials for a Polite Trail Dog

Bringing a dog on any trail requires some groundwork. Any non-oblivious dog owner feels a responsibility to have control over their dog’s actions, and otherwise might experience some embarrassing moments. No matter how many miles Luna hikes, I’m constantly working to improve her behavior towards other hikers and dogs. 

Foremost, consistency and practice is the key. Big surprise. Getting your dog experienced off leash (at the park, beach, woods, etc.) is the only way to curb their desire to dart off, rebel, or be obnoxious. It’s not easy, and requires a lot of work on part of the owner to master trail etiquette with their pup. Here are my top 7 essentials for any trail dog to learn:

1. RECALL

It’s no secret that this is the single most important thing for a dog to learn, hopefully from early puppyhood. All pups love the freedom to roam off leash, but having the confidence that they’ll come back when asked, is essential. A variety of commands is useful for this one, especially if there’s distance between you. Aside from “come,” I taught my dog to come to her name and the sound of my whistle. Reinforcement is crucial here- praise and for food motivated dogs, LOTS OF TREATS helps maintain this behavior. The timeline of all this can be a struggle, but perfection isn’t always the goal. For example: If Luna has darted off into the woods at something, I’ll give her a minute to enjoy her chase (assuming it’s not a dangerous situation).. then call her back. If she comes right away, she gets praise and a treat. If she comes, but on her own time.. just praise. I have to constantly remind myself that her coming back at all deserves reinforcement.  

2. “FOLLOW”

Aside from basic recall, this is the most useful off-leash command I’ve taught my dog. The purpose of it is to essentially have her ON a leash, while she’s actually not. Under “follow” she’s instructed to walk directly at my side or behind me until she’s gotten the “OK.” This took a lot of practice and treats, and still can be challenging for her to submit at distracting times. On the trail, this is INSANELY helpful when passing by wildlife, other hikers (especially with kids or dogs), road crossings, or any other sudden circumstances where you want them back at your side. It can also translate into “city life” situations like crossing a street or walking back to the house from the car. I can’t understate how helpful it’s been to have this when you don’t want to, or don’t have time to put them on a leash.

3. BARKING

Most dogs bark as a form of alerting you to what they see as potential danger. So, here’s the catch: when you habituate a dog to the outdoors, they instinctively want to bark more. A trail dog doesn’t have a home to protect, so YOU become the thing that needs protection (even more strongly in working breeds). This isn’t always a bad thing, especially as a solo traveler. However, it’s best when you have control over it, and can turn it off. Despite being very friendly, my dog has picked up the habit of barking at people when they come up on the trail behind me when we’re taking a break or are in camp. This can be really intimidating, especially if someone is afraid of dogs. This is BY FAR, the biggest obstacle I experience with a dog on the trail. If I successfully taught her not to bark at all, then I wouldn’t be alerted to potential dangers like bears wandering into camp. Teaching a command to turn off the barking is quite a skill, one I haven’t mastered yet. So instead, I try and give Luna the chance to greet and say hello to every hiker we run into, that way, if she sees them again, she’s less likely to see them as a threat and bark. Another option? If you see someone coming up the trail, grab a treat and their attention.. if they calmly lay there and let the person go by, or give them a friendly greeting, reward them immediately to encourage the behavior. 

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4. PERSONAL SPACE

Chances are, if you are on one of the popular long distance trails or areas… there will be nights you are camped with other hikers. In that case, your dog is too. If you are among friends or hiking partners, even if they love having a dog around, they may want their space in the evenings to relax. It’s important to let other people decide how much, or how little time they want to spend playing and snuggling with your dog in camp. Often, this mostly means asking people to let you know when they’ve had enough. A lot of hikers enjoy having a dog around camp in the evenings to cuddle with, or in the mornings to energize them, but not everyone. Most dogs will read people’s energy and adapt accordingly, but showing your dog they aren’t running the show can be an important message.

5. WATER SOURCES

Like us, dogs need to drink a lot of water on the trail to stay hydrated. Most dogs will instinctively drink whenever they come to a flowing stream or lake. Coming to a trickling water source sometimes means difficulty collecting and filtering, and if a dog walks through the water upstream and mucks it up.. it becomes even more of a challenge. Encouraging a dog to drink DOWNSTREAM from where hikers will fill up their water is practicing good hygiene and responsibility.

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6. BEGGING

Like hikers, trail dogs develop an uncanny hunger as a result of burning thousands of calories per day. Even the most polite dog will probably change their behavior towards food after days or weeks of hiking. Developing a food aggression is not uncommon. To prevent this, handle their food and pet them while eating, and remind them to take treats gently. My #1 problem with food? Begging from other hikers while they eat. It’s a really bad habit Luna develops after some time on trail, and it’s tough for me to turn down calories when people ask to give her food. So instead, I ask that people put it in her bowl with her food, or make her do some tricks for it. That way, she isn’t rewarded for annoying people while they eat. 

7. OTHER DOGS

It’s fair to assume that a trail dog is well socialized, but that’s not always the case for every dog, especially those out for a day or weekend hike. When someone comes along with their dog, I make a judgement call and will often put my dog under “follow.” That way, when we pass on the trail, I am in the lead, and Luna is free to greet, play, or ignore the dog as she pleases. I’ll say hello and continue walking, and once she’s done with her interaction, will follow. When I keep our pace ahead, she knows she can’t dilly dally for long. Other dog is on a leash? Simply ask if they are friendly and if the answer is “no” keep your dog at your side until you pass by and don't give your dog permission to approach. As long as your dog is well-mannered and responsive to a "verbal leash", no need to put them on a physical leash for the 30 seconds in order to pass by. 

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