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Useful Skills for Camping & Hiking With Your Dog

Welcome back to part two of our mini series on hiking and camping! This week I want to focus on what skills are most useful to make your trip with your dog as enjoyable as possible. There are quite a few skills that are very helpful. There are the obvious ones like coming when called, which is mostly only useful if your adventure is able to be off leash. For this post we are going to focus on the things that are needed for our on leash adventures, and some skills that might not be quite as obvious.

Let’s start at the campsite.

Skill #1: Place & Stationing

Easily the best skill to have at your campsite is a solid place cue. It can also be helpful to combine it with your dog being stationed within sight, but out of reach. Some dogs can really struggle with this. Usually at our campsite we have our dogs attached to a stake with their place beds and water within reach. Their leashes attached to the stake are like a backup. They can move around a little, drink and stretch their legs, but they cannot completely wander off if their place fails or if we get distracted. We usually make sure that they are within the heat zone of the fire, but not too close, as well.

So what do you need to do to get your place strong enough for a campsite? Practice! Here are a few suggestions of situations to practice at home.

  • Are you able to sit in a chair next to your dog on a place?

  • Are you able to walk a full circle around your dog while they are on place?

  • Are you able to stand for extended periods next to your dog while they are on place?

  • Is your dog able to hold their place outside in a quiet park?

  • Is your dog able to hold their place outside in a busy park?

  • Is your dog able to hold their place while other dogs are around?

If your dog can do all of these things, you are probably ready to take your place to the campsite! It can be extremely helpful to have a raised cot bed for camping as well. Not only will this keep your dog off the ground and help to regulate their body temperature and keep them out of the mud, but it also creates a really defined boundary to help your dog maintain their place more easily.

Skill #2: Getting into a Tent

This isn’t really a skill you can specifically put on cue. However, it is very important to make sure your dog feels comfortable getting in your tent before you get out to the woods. Tents are very strange for our dogs, they move, sound and behave differently than a house. Sometimes even the most confident dog can be spooked by a flapping tent. The best way to help your dog get comfortable is practice! Set your tent up in your backyard and just practice getting in, getting cookies, and getting out! The tent should be a fun place. Have multiple tents? (We certainly do) Practice with all of them!

Skill #3: Wait

Okay, so your dog is in the tent and feeling comfortable. Great! But now you have to get out. Your dog is right there, hopping at the tent door and your shoes are out there too. You know your dog is going to push through as soon as you start unzipping, what do you do? This is where having a wait cue comes in handy. (It can also be helpful to have a second person in the tent!)

A wait cue is very similar to a stay, and you can definitely use a stay cue here as well. The main difference for me between a stay and a wait cue is that wait is more of a pause and exclusively used at thresholds. I don’t really care what position my dog is in, or if it changes in a wait, I just want them to not move forward. So, how do we teach our dogs to wait? It’s a lot like teaching stay, but you can also teach it at doorways.

  • Go to a door with your dog (either door at your house or car door), and put your hand on the doorknob.

  • Ask your dog to wait, then start to open the door.

  • If your dog moves forward, shut the door, ask them to wait again and try again.

  • If your dog stays still, mark and treat, then close the door and repeat.

  • As your dog is successful, open the door a little bit further on the next repetition. Once you can open the door completely wide, start releasing your dog through it as their reward!

This still takes some practice to transfer to a tent, but the more doorways you practice this in the better. When you are camping, always make sure to have your dogs leash on even if they are usually good at their ‘wait’. Better safe than sorry.

So now you have a dog who is great at the campsite, what about on the trails?

Skill #1: Loose Leash Walking

Walking on a nice loose leash is a very important foundation for enjoying time outdoors with your dog. A hike isn’t really enjoyable if your dog is continuously yanking your arm out of its socket. This doesn’t mean that we need our dogs in a heel though. Hiking is not really conducive to heel position. A lot of trails are very narrow and will require you to move single file with your dog. It is up to you if you want your dog moving in front of you or behind you, and to be honest I tend to alternate. Teaching your dog to move loosely in front of you is typically easier than teaching them to move behind you, so I tend to start there.

When it comes to hiking my definition of loose leash walking is very different than what I expect when we are walking in a neighborhood or shopping center. I have taught an environmental cue for this with my dogs. If we are on a gravel or dirt path, they know that they can walk differently than if we are on concrete. Basically, when we are hiking (or walking in a park), unless they are cued otherwise, my dogs have the freedom to walk at the end of their leash. I don’t mind if it is taught, as long as they are not continuing to pull into it.

In rough terrain it can be difficult to stick to strict rules, but I have found that allowing my dogs to move to the end of their leash gives them the freedom to move how they need to in order to successfully navigate the trails. (And sometimes help me up a steep hill).

Teaching this is very similar to teaching any kind of loose leash walking skill. It just takes consistency. If my dogs are pulling too much I will stop moving and wait until they release the tension. I am also very consistent with my rules between concrete walking vs natural path walking.

Skill #2: Movement Cues

On top of your nice leash walking skills, movement cues are incredibly helpful. I have a couple of movement cues that I use often with my dogs.

The first one is “easy”. “Easy” basically means “move a little slower”. Sometimes my dogs aren’t exactly pulling, but just moving a little too fast for me to keep my footing. In these situations it is sometimes unsafe for me to stop moving, so an “easy” cue helps to slow my dogs down a little without me having to compromise my footing.

The other cue I use often is “mush”. “Mush” means “pick up the pace”. I couldn’t resist using this common sledding cue! Sometimes I will use this cue if we are already moving but I need my dog to move a little faster, and sometimes I will use it if they have stopped and I need them to start moving again.

I usually hike with my dogs on a waist leash. The bungee of the waist leash is very helpful in cushioning any incidental pulling from either us, and helpful when teaching these cues. I will start in a regular walking pace, then say “mush” and start jogging a little bit. When my dogs pick up their pace, I will mark and treat. Then, I will say

“easy” and go back to a regular walking pace. When my dog slows down, I will mark and treat. I will also start in a regular walking pace, cue “easy”, and then slow my pace, marking and treating when my dog slows down as well. I continue like this, with a slight gap between the cue and my pace change, until my dog starts changing their pace without me changing my pace. I will also start just using these on hikes as we move. I tend to find that they are things our dogs pick up on somewhat intuitively the more that you practice.

Skill #3: Wait

We already talked about this one right! Why is it listed again? I use “wait” a lot on hikes so that I can scramble down some rocks before my dog. This prevents me from getting yanked down by them and my dog from hitting the end of their leash before their intended footing and getting injured. It is a very different context than using this at a threshold so I wanted to repeat it here to suggest that you practice this on trails as well.

Skill #4: Here

By far our most used trail cue is “here”. It is a directional cue, and is how I get my dogs off the trail to avoid other dogs, bikes, or hikers that we need to get out of the way of. We use this off leash as well as on leash. What it means is, “come to the spot I am pointing at and sit”. I will then ask them to stay as the thing we are avoiding passes, before releasing them and continuing on our way.

This is a skill that you can start practicing around the house. Call your dog to you and as they approach, point in front of you and say “here”. As they get there ask for a sit, then mark and treat. As you practice, you can start to fade out the extra sit cue and wait for your dog to offer the sit. I will also practice this when my dog checks in with me sometimes, so that I don’t have to use their name to get them into position each time. If they are looking at you already you can always start by luring them into position in front of you, then fading out the lure.

This is a short list, and I’m sure there are many other skills that come in very handy while hiking and camping. These are the skills that I use the most often, and find help me the most. In our recent trip to Garner our “here” cue was a major factor in us being able to avoid the dog that caused the altercation, and “easy” and “wait” both definitely helped me survive the slick and rocky hike down. “Place” also gave us huge peace of mind at the campsite, especially combined with our stake. It allowed us to truly enjoy our time fireside without worrying about the dogs.

Hiking and camping with our dogs can be incredible, relaxing and massively enjoyable. It can also be stressful and awful if you aren’t prepared. With these skills, and the habits we discussed in our previous post, you will be well on your way to your trips being enjoyable, instead of stressful.

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