One of my favorite things to do with my dogs is go camping and hiking. We do it often, and it is a pretty big part of my life with my dogs. We had an experience recently on one of our camping trips that really made me realize how important the skills I have taught my dogs to create a positive hiking experience are. Over the next few posts we will be talking about what skills and habits we find to be the most helpful on these types of trips, what you should carry for your dogs on these trips, and how to handle it should the unthinkable happen to you and your dog.
Helpful Habits for Hiking with your Dog
When you are hiking with your dog, on leash or off leash, there are a handful of habits and skills that are extremely helpful to us. They help to create an enjoyable and fun hike for all of the humans and dogs involved, and they can help to keep your dog safe. Safety is so important with our dogs, especially if you are hiking away from cell reception or over great distances. It is even more important if you are doing these things with a dog that you cannot carry back out. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. I would much rather you feel silly for being over-trained and over prepared with your dog, than find yourself in a situation where you need things you just don’t have.
Let’s start by talking about actions we can take, as human handlers, in these environments. These are habits for you to develop that will help keep your dog safe, and keep them in tune with you.
Habit # 1: Avoiding Other Dogs
I realize this sounds very counter intuitive. You’re out hiking, enjoying nature, your dog is friendly and loves other dogs. Why wouldn’t you let them greet that dog over there that also looks friendly? Well, there’s a few reasons.
We want to avoid our dogs expecting to interact with every dog they see. If they expect to say hello to every dog they pass, we will have some difficulties on our hands when we come across a dog that they cannot greet.
On leash greetings can be tricky because of the leashes. Tangled leashes and extra tension in the greeting can create an issue where there might not have been one if the dogs were off leash.
The other owner may not want your dogs to greet. Sometimes people feel very uncomfortable verbalizing it, but not everyone wants to deal with the human social aspects of their dog interacting with yours. They may also be unsure if their dog is friendly, or have had a bad experience of their own at some time.
You genuinely cannot guarantee that a dog is friendly, even if they don’t seem obviously aggressive.
The experience we recently had while camping was a great and terrifying demonstration of this. A dog passed me and my dog, who I had moved off the trail to avoid an interaction. The owners of the other dog clearly thought an interaction would be okay, but on habit I avoided it. A few minutes later their dog attacked a smaller dog as it passed, and the altercation resulted in injuries to the smaller dog and both of its owners. Especially when you are in a high intensity and very exciting environment, like hiking in the hills, you cannot judge a dog's social abilities based on the short glimpse we get as they move towards us. Especially given that most dogs who are out hiking do not have the skills we are talking about today, so they are usually not under any particular control, and straining at the end of their leash.
I will make life pretty awkward to avoid other dogs honestly. I’ll go into the trees, put my dog up on a rock or a steep hill, even navigate around thorns. I’d rather my leg get a little scratched up than have an interaction happen. I didn’t see any body language from this dog on the trail that made alarm bells go off in my head. The dog was pulling like a freight train on its leash, but seemed goofy and happy and like it was having the time of its life as it chugged towards us. Even as someone experienced evaluating dogs I didn’t see any warning signs. The only thing that saved us from being in the smaller dogs shoes was my habit. If you feel that you cannot stop your dog from greeting every single dog they see, I encourage you to at least avoid interactions with dogs whose owners don’t seem like they have very good control.
What about off leash? Surely I don’t avoid all dog interactions if I am off leash with my dogs! Correct, I don’t. If we are in an off leash space I assume that people are aware of their dogs social skills enough to know that they should be there. However, I do still have a few rules when we are interacting with dogs in an off leash space.
If the other dog is on leash I avoid letting my dogs interact. An on leash dog being accosted by a group of off leash dogs is a recipe for a defensive outburst from the on leash dog, and a great way to create a reactive dog.
If the other dog is muzzled, I will typically keep our interactions as short as possible. Some dogs are somewhat social with other dogs, but have a much shorter fuse than your average dog. Some owners choose to hike these dogs in a muzzle so that their pup can enjoy the freedom of an off leash hike without the stress of a possible altercation. In my experience, dogs who are in this position do best when their interactions with other dogs are short and sweet, so I do my best to make their interaction with my dogs as positive as possible.
I try not to let my dogs greet a dog out of my sight. This isn’t always possible with the Border Collie, but if I can hear people or dogs ahead of us on the trail I will ask my dogs to stay with me until they are at least in sight so that I can supervise the interaction and make sure that everything goes well.
Following these simple rules helps keep my off leash hikes as calm as possible as well.
Habit #2: Reinforce Check Ins From Your Dog
I suppose that really this habit should be “bring treats on your hike”, but carrying treats doesn’t do much for your dogs if you don’t use them. I talk about this a lot when I am discussing off leash skills for dogs, but it is also important when you are out and about with your dog on leash. We definitely don’t want our dogs to think that their leash going on is a cue to disconnect from us.
Besides, the best way to ensure that our dog is able to listen to us, is to make sure that they know that paying attention to us is worth their while. It’s really easy to make sure that our dogs feel super happy about connecting with us, just treat when they do! Especially when you are in a new environment, and one that is rife with novel distractions, treating your dog when they choose to check in with you goes a long way.
Habit #3: Leave No Trace, or Pack It In, Pack It Out
If you frequent parks with your dogs, especially state parks, I’m sure you have seen signs to this effect somewhere. I’m sure you have also seen them if you go to parks where you do not take your dogs .Most parks that allow camping will have signs saying “Pack It In, Pack It Out” or “Leave No Trace”. This is a really important habit to get into whether you camp with dogs or not, but it is especially important when we are out in nature with our dogs.
It seems kind of silly at first. Dogs are animals too, what harm could they do to nature? Honestly? A lot. Dogs are not a natural part of any ecosystem. This means that wherever they are in nature, they are an invasive species and can cause a lot of damage if we are not careful. So what does Leave No Trace look like for our dogs?
Be careful with your treats. Don’t bring treats that crumble easily, and if they start to crumb open some new ones. Do your best not to leave treat dust around the trails. We have no way of knowing how the treats we bring would affect wildlife, and we definitely don’t want to make the trails seem like a source of food for them.
Pick up the poop, and actually take it down the trail with you. Sure, your dog poop will decompose, but that doesn’t mean it won’t carry something that could negatively affect the wildlife in the area you are hiking. This is the main reason that parks will change their dog friendly status, they just get overrun with poop. The biggest offenders tend to be the people who bag their dogs poop, and then just leave it on the trail. I can almost guarantee you will forget about that bag, and if you aren’t familiar with the trails there’s a good chance you won't even walk past it again. Put it in your pack and carry it until you find an appropriate trash can. If it grosses you out too much to carry it, get your dog a backpack and have them carry it out.
Leave what you find. Just because your pup REALLY LIKES a stick, doesn’t mean it should come with you. Do your best to leave things as you find them. You never know who’s home your pup may be inadvertently destroying.
Respect wildlife around you. When you have a dog this can be difficult, but it is up to us to discourage our dogs from barking at and chasing wildlife as much as possible. It’s not very nice of us to go into these animals homes and bring someone who screams at them. Making sure that you have a solid “Leave It” cue is very helpful with this, as well as knowing how to distract your dog in these situations.
Habit #4: Respect the Leash Laws
This should be a habit for you no matter where you are, but especially if you are out camping and hiking. Disregard for leash laws is another reason that parks will often change their dog friendly status. It is also very dangerous to let your dog off leash in areas where you, and they, do not know the terrain or what the wildlife is like. It can be disruptive to other campers as well if they take off from your campsite.
We all know that I am all for off leash time, but we need to be responsible about it. Find spaces that are designated for off leash time. If the park you are camping in is strictly on leash, it’s a great time to crack out a long line so that your dog can stretch their legs a little more. Be responsible, and be respectful of other campers. The ones directly around you, and the future campers who would also like to bring their dogs.
Building these habits into your hiking and camping routines will take you one step closer to being a model citizen when out and about with your dog. These routines will not only make your trip more pleasant, but make life more pleasant for those around you and help to encourage those in charge to continue to allow dogs into these situations. They will also help to keep all of you safe.
Next week we will be back and talking all about skills to teach your dog that will help to make life even easier for you while enjoying the outdoors with your dogs. Keep your eyes on this space!