As in everything, it’s important to practice skills before you need them. Preparing yourself and your dog for an enjoyable and safe hike means practicing trail skills long before you ever hit the dirt into the back country.
These are the behaviors we teach in our Ready, Set, HIKE! program. I believe all dog/owner teams on trails should have these as a minimum. If you love working with your dog at home, please take this information and fly with it. If you need assistance, please contact a trainer in your area to help you with these essential trail skills.
- Self control in the car – If you have a wackadoodle of a dog that is winding up and getting more excited as you approach the trail head parking area, the single worst thing you could do for them and those around you is let them out of the car as soon as you get there. If they don’t have self control arriving, they most certainly aren’t going to have it on the trail. And it’s really bad behavior on the handlers part to allow a dog to run around trail head parking areas while you are getting yourself ready. Self control in the car is the same as self control or capturing calm on a mat. Calm gets the car doors to open, pushy does not. Practice self control and relaxing in the car, and then add a wait or a stay word to it. Have your dog relaxing in the car while you get yourself ready. Then clip on their leash and release them when you are ready to go. note – all dogs should be on leash at least 100 yards into a trail. It’s polite and safe.
- Call to me, stay close, release& Between – teaching a great recall in the great outdoors is mandatory, especially if your dog is off leash. When you are building a bomb proof recall at home, every time your dog comes to you, you need to have a reward that is crazy high value (and that reward is ONLY used for recalls). Meatballs raining from the sky are not a bad thing! Your space is the place to be. BUT you also need to work on keeping your dog with you once they come into your space, stay close, and then getting good at releasing them. Between is a behavior that gives your dog a defined place to be. If they are between your legs, they don’t have to guess what their job is. Great for the dog that needs extra security, a young dog with low impulse control, a dog that doesn’t want other dogs in their space, etc. VIDEO
- Collar – having your dog come and place their head in their collar, harness, pack or leash. I use the word collar generically for leash, collar, pack, and harness. What you are teaching is, “present your head into the loop”. If you call your dog to you, you do not want them to pull away when the leash comes out, you want them to WANT TO HAVE IT CLIPPED ON. Condition your dog to love having gear put on or taken off. The added bonus is that it is a great assist with a recall. VIDEO
- Directionals, get off the trail to the right or left – So fun to teach, we not only use this for trail work but just for fun in general. Sometimes when life becomes to hairy on the trail, it’s best to send your dog off the trail to either the right or left. There is no reason to make your dog face something that is over their skill level and/or dangerous. The amount of distance you send them off is up to your training. If I send my dogs off the trail I like a good 20-40 feet, I add a remote down stay once my dogs have good distance and understand directionals. VIDEO
- Down Stay – using a down stay next to you while investigating wild flowers, tracks or scat is important, but so is a down stay at a distance. Down stay should be a fun game so your dog enjoys it. If too much pressure is put on your dog with this behavior then you’ll never get it in the great outdoors. We use a mat as a destination, a go to place, and we practice all behaviors at a distance so it remains fun and something they WANT TO DO. VIDEO
- Behind – walking with your dog behind you. An excellent skill when passing other trail users, or coming down the trail. Behind is taught as a position, you can practice walking and tossing treats behind you, or walk through tight spaces that only accommodate one body at a time. It’s often times nicer when you can great other trail user’s before your dog. Great for dogs that are uncertain with greeting, or those that prefer to not be greeted at all. Think of it as “thank you for telling me you don’t want to interact, I’ll take care of it”.
- Trail fetch – if you have a dog that needs a job while hiking, please be honest about it and give them one. Use sticks in your environment or a low cost toy (if it gets lost you don’t want it to break the bank!). ALWAYS throw the stick behind you, so your dog is ALWAYS catching up to you. It is a super bad idea to send your dog ahead of you, as you never know what’s coming your way. Catching up is preferred.
Have Fun, Nancy