A Hiker’s Guide to Dog Training

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All photos by © Jenn Fantasia

On a crisp Friday morning, I wind my way up a solid dirt path with my faithful Saint Bernard, Bailey, alongside. We’re in route to Herman Gulch, a stunning and popular lake destination for hikers in Colorado. Tall evergreens line the well-traveled path and a crystal-clear river provides a pleasant soundtrack to our ascent. After hiking 3.5 miles uphill, we reach the ridge. My hiking boots punch through remnants of snow patches and Bailey happily throws gulps of snow into her mouth, chomping at the tiny pieces of ice as they spill out of her jowls. We crest the ridge and gaze upon the sparkling lake below, cradled in a natural bowl surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. We stop to take it all in.

Moments later, my peaceful experience is rudely interrupted by a medium-sized lab bounding up from the lake and barking obnoxiously. In a predictable fashion, the owners jump to attention and start shouting, “Hey, get back here! Come, Scout, Come!” If there was any wildlife present, by this time it has surely scattered. Bounding in full force, the dog reaches us and launches his front paws onto my stomach, leaving streaks of mud across my shirt. The owners come trampling up the hill, take their dog by the collar, and shamefully avoid eye contact as they direct him back to their once-peaceful spot by the lake.

Dog-LNT3I wish I could say that was the only time my adventures have been spoiled by an overzealous dog on the trail. I imagine that most hikers have experienced a similar situation, or perhaps you have been that owner who watched your dog commit to a decision that left you feeling helpless and mildly humiliated.

As avid hikers, many of us try to abide by the Leave No Trace Principles in order to minimize our impact on the outdoors. For example, I stay on the trail, pack out my trash, leave nature where I found it, and have the ultimate respect for wildlife – gold star for me! But more often than not, you will find me hiking with at least one exceptionally large, furry, and noble companion by my side. The Leave No Trace Principles have been spelled out well for humans, but is it possible to train our dogs to do the same? Most definitely! This article will guide you through training a dog that is capable of “leaving only pawprints” by following these guidelines:

1.  Wear Your Leash

Oh, the dreaded leash conversation! I know it is tempting to skip this part because we hikers hate to be told to leash our dogs…let’s be honest, many of us start our excursions by unclipping our dog’s leash. But hear me out. The dog who hikes on leash leaves no trace.

The most common remark I hear from owners on this topic is, “my dog is better off-leash than he is on-leash.” This is a roundabout way of confessing that the dog has not been successfully trained to walk politely on a loose leash, and trust me, MANY owners can relate. So, if you have a dog who has yet to master the skill of polite leash walking, here are the basics.

Use a standard, 6-foot nylon leash. This leash gives you consistent and reliable control of your dog while also keeping him on the trail to minimize the impact on vegetation and wildlife. Retractable leashes are too inconsistent to use on a dog in training, and they can be downright dangerous if your dog decides to bolt after a tiny chipmunk when you’re not looking.

If your dog pulls on-leash, use a harness designed to reduce pulling. A front-hook harness is a great option for the mild puller. These harnesses are designed so that the leash clips on the front of the dog’s chest, which makes it anatomically awkward for the dog to pull forward. If your dog is a persistently strong puller, you may need a leader designed to comfortably loop around a dog’s snout in order to give you the ultimate control of their momentum. The only caveat is that you have to take some time to help your dog get used to wearing it before hitting the trail.

I know it’s not always preferable to have your dog leashed while hiking, but it is truly the best way to minimize your dog’s impact. Trust me – when you have a dog who walks nicely alongside you, you’ll hardly notice the leash!

2.  Come When Called

If you’re on a trail that allows dogs to be off-leash, be sure that your dog is fluent in the “come” command before letting him loose. This can be a serious, life-saving command. Therefore, it is important to make sure that your dog is conditioned to bolt back to your side whenever he hears “come.” The best way to train your dog to come when called is to pair up the word “COME” with the ultimate treat – think bacon, hot dogs, cheese, pork fat, leftover steak…are you drooling yet?

You want your dog to have a subconscious response of excitement every time he hears the word “COME,” which means you need to convince him that this special word is always worth coming to!

Start this training at home with no distractions. Say the word “COME” one time and immediately deliver the ultimate treat to his mouth. Back up one step and repeat. Back up two steps and repeat, then three steps, four, etc. until your dog anticipates you calling him and won’t leave your side. Once your dog has caught on, you’ll want the help of a partner to play what I call the recall game. Get a partner and stand about 5 feet away from each other. Have one person start by calling the dog, using his name first, and then clearly say “COME” one time. When the dog gets to you, lavish him with praise and offer him several tiny bits of the ultimate food reward. Stop rewarding the dog and then have the other person do the same. Continue to call your dog back and forth while gradually increasing the distance between you and your partner until your dog will come running from any distance you desire.

Once your dog has developed a quick response to the word “COME,” make sure that you reward him every time he hears it. Got that? Not some of the time, EVERY TIME! This is the only surefire way to guarantee the command will work in the midst of distractions on a hiking trail.

That said, be sure to bring a high-value food reward with you when you go hiking. I recommend using freeze-dried lamb, liver, venison, or something similar since these treats are lightweight, never have to be refrigerated, and dogs love them! Freeze-dried meat treats can be purchased at your local pet store.

3.  Speak Sparingly

On the subject of barking, I’ll start off by reminding everyone this: barking is normal dog behavior. But a dog that barks excessively in the wilderness will disrupt more than just other hikers. A barking dog can also have an undesirable impact on wildlife. I will address the two most common barking scenarios that hikers experience:

You’re hiking on the trail with your dog on a leash and here comes another hiker with a dog walking toward you. Upon seeing them, your dog may bark out of excitement, anxiety or fear. Regardless of the reason, this behavior should be redirected. Get your dog’s attention and reward him with treats for focusing on you. If you’re good at multitasking, you can continue to walk forward as you reward the dog in a high-frequency fashion for focusing on you. If you prefer to stop walking, move off to the side of the trail taking care not to trample vegetation. Ask your dog to sit and reward him as the other dog draws near. If you can keep your dog’s attention on you by using treats, continue to reward him as the other dog passes and then continue on your way. This will take consistent practice as your dog learns to focus on you rather than another person or dog who is passing. Note: if the other dog is off-leash and running your way, the training opportunity is lost and you’re better off just letting your dog say a brief hello and continuing on your way.

Many dogs are also prone to reacting to something after they’ve been resting in the same spot for a period of time. For example, you’re sitting next to an alpine lake having a snack, your dog is sitting quietly by your side, and a person crests the hill into view. Your dog perks up, starts barking, and perhaps even runs toward the unsuspecting hiker. This is not only frustrating for the owner but being bombarded by an alert-barking dog can be especially annoying to the person who is passing by or just reaching their hiking destination. In this scenario, make sure your dog is leashed when you take a load off and bring along a lasting chew item for him to enjoy as you rest. Great items to pack for this situation are bully sticks, large rawhides, Himalayan yak sticks, or elk antlers. This chew item will help your dog remain happy, engaged, and quiet as other hikers pass.

Generally speaking, a dog that barks frequently at visual triggers when it is on a leash is known to be “leash reactive.” If your dog struggles with leash reactivity on a regular basis, it’s not a bad idea to consider enrolling in personalized training to get some hands-on assistance to resolve this behavior off the trail. The key to managing this behavior on the trail is not to tell your dog “no,” but rather to learn and understand the ways that you can redirect the behavior to a choice that is more appropriate.

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4.  Pack It Out

Most furry hiking companions are fully capable of carrying their own hiking supplies! However, if you’re thinking about strapping a brand-new pack on your dog’s back for the first time at the trailhead, think again. While some dogs would be okay with this, I highly recommend getting your dog used to wearing a pack before hitting the trail. Here’s how: Once you find the appropriate pack for your dog, put the empty pack on your dog just before their mealtime. Let your dog eat his meal with the pack on and then take it off. This is an easy way to desensitize your dog to a pack while making it a positive experience. After doing this for a few days, start having your dog wear the empty pack on daily walks in the neighborhood. Once your dog seems okay with this, slowly start to add some weight into the pack. Generally speaking, dogs can safely carry 15-20% of their body weight. Using this process, most dogs will be comfortable wearing a pack within 5-7 days of practice, if not sooner.

waterbowl-treatsYou might be wondering: why does my dog need to wear a pack? Frankly, he doesn’t. But throughout this guide, I’ve mentioned some specific items that you will want to have on-hand for training, including treats, chew items and harnesses. It’s also important to bring along a collapsible water bowl, poop bags and dog first aid supplies. Dogs were bred to work, so give your dog a job and make him carry his own supplies. Not to mention, it will definitely come in handy for packing out that used poop bag!

When training on the trail is a struggle

Keep in mind, your dog is an individual and different breeds have different needs. If you find yourself getting frustrated with training, keep the following things in mind:

  1. It is always best to practice behaviors in low-distraction environments before expecting them to work on the trail. If your dog doesn’t respond to the word “come” in your home, there’s no way it’s going to work in marmot-country. Make time to practice regularly at home and you will have far more success on hiking day.
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  2. Although it is important to teach your dog what not to do, it is more important to teach them what they are supposed to do. Use a high-value food reward to keep your dog motivated – food is not a bribe, it is a form of positive feedback for an animal that doesn’t speak English. If your dog is in training, you should never leave home without his favorite form of positive feedback.
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  3. When in doubt, hire a trainer who can provide private and tailored advice for you and your dog. Look for someone who emphasizes the importance of positive reinforcement and has at least several years of legitimate experience in the world of animal training.

Remember, dog training takes time and consistency to get the results you want. Be patient, practice often, and use this guide to help you and your furry friend start hiking toward success!


Written by Jenn Fantasia. Jenn works seasonally for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the Partnership Program, which forges relationships with outdoor organizations across the state in an effort to conserve Colorado’s natural resources. Jenn is also a professional dog trainer in Denver, Colorado.

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