How to Train Your Dog For the Trail

Want to take your pups hiking? Keep them safe—and make them good ambassadors for caninekind—with these basic training tips.

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Adapted from Hiking and Backpacking with Dogs, by Linda Mullally. Check out the full book here.

There are cultures where it is accepted for dogs to roam all day and come home for dinner and a bed. But in our society, with an ever-increasing number of dogs in closer urban quarters, managing dog behavior is also about respecting other people’s space. This also applies to the hiking trails, where there are an increasing number of people with dogs who want to escape to nature on weekends and holidays. 

On one hand, it’s wonderful to see more people embracing the outdoors in the company of their dogs. But more trail users also means more pressure on the environment, wildlife habitat, and each other. 

Not everyone likes dogs, and not every hiker and backpacker is in favor of sharing the trail with dogs. Hikers and backpackers with dogs carry an extra responsibility: A well-behaved dog with obedience training promotes positive PR. On the other hand, the nuisance and hazards of a few uncontrolled dogs can result in all dogs being banned from the trail. 

Once you step out of your yard and onto the trail, everything your dog is and isn’t reflects on you and impacts other people, animals, and the surrounding environment. Basic obedience skills are essential on the trail.  

Your Dog’s Trail ABCs 

Appropriate behavior around everyone on the trail. 

Basic repertoire of verbal and/or hand signal commands, including sit, down, stay, and come.

Controls his impulses and responds to commands (verbal or hand signals) in spite of the distracting sights, sounds, and smells of the trail. 

Good Manners and Lifesavers 

Use the word “off” when training your dog not to jump on people or dance on furniture. “Down” should be used strictly for lying down. It is unrealistic to expect an exuberant pup to respond to the “down” command under highly excitable circumstances. The best you can expect is for your dog to learn to display her excitement with all four paws touching the ground and stay “off.” 

Teach your dog that when you say “stay” or “wait” when opening the car door, he should remain in the open vehicle until his leash is on and you’ve given the command that it’s okay to jump out. 

Making a habit of having your dog sit and stay before a treat, coming in the house, stepping out of the house, or eating his food is a good impulse control exercise.

Training Options 

There are several good training books available in the library, bookstores, pet supply stores, and online. The two main advantages of training your dog yourself are control of the training schedule and the minimal cost.

Having said that, it’s more likely that novice dog owners intending to train their dog on their own with the help of a book will experience frustration, confuse their dog, create more bad habits than good ones, and inflict unnecessary stress on themselves and the dog while straining the relationship.

 The time and money invested in a puppy class followed by at least basic obedience in a group environment will give you invaluable rewards. Besides being introduced to basic commands, your pup will learn to walk on a loose leash.

  Puppy classes and beginner’s obedience classes are as much about “training” people as they are about “molding” your dog’s behavior. This is where a qualified instructor teaches you to read your dog and give positive, clear messages to elicit the desired behaviors before you fall into the trap of having your dog “train” you or worse—having your murky communication foster a chaotic dysfunctional relationship that makes both dog and owner miserable. 

Group class schedules are available through kennel clubs, pet supply stores, and animal shelters. 

The old adage that the dog owner is the “master” and dogs need to be “dominated” is archaic and thankfully passé as a basis for training. A good class emphasizes positive, reward-based techniques. You and your dog are a “pack” (a family of two or more), and you are the pack “leader” the dog learns to trust because you set the course with aplomb and consistency. 

The Importance of Being Consistent 

Inconsistency breeds unpredictability. Rules and routines should be the same on the trail as they are at home. No should mean no anywhere. You don’t want your dog testing you on the trail, where a rebellious act could put her life at risk or jeopardize someone else’s safety.

Do reward your dog with a pat or a treat when he responds to a command. 

Don’t use your dog’s name in a reprimand or call your dog to “come” to give him a reprimand. His name and the word come should be strictly associated with positive, pleasurable experiences. 

Potty-Training Tips for the Trail 

Conditioning your dog to relieve himself on command on-leash is a valuable habit on the way to the trailhead or anytime you may need to monitor where your dog relieves himself during the hike.

Begin at home by taking your dog outside on a leash at routine elimination times to the designated area. Use a short command phrase like “go potty,” “hurry up,” or “get busy” as your dog relieves himself, avoiding an overzealous tone that could distract him from business. Reward your dog with a pat, enthusiastic praise, and a treat.

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