FitnessTraining Tips

Training Your Dog to Hike Off Lead

One of the best quotes my mom ever shared with me is: A good dog is a tired dog. So, I take my dogs on long off lead hikes as often as I can. People say, I have a big backyard so I don’t need to take my dog out. Um, no. That is not the same. Imagine being stuck in your house, day after day, no end in
sight. Not fun at all. Besides that, when my dogs are in the yard alone, all they do is trot from sliding glass door to sliding glass door to stare at me. There is very little muscle development and certainly no increase in heart rate. So, we hike.

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Kisney at my sister’s house. Even here, all she does is find a way to stare at me.

Why off lead?

My yellow lab Kinsey was bred to run through brush and swim through ponds to retrieve birds all day long. So, a fifteen-minute walk around the block on a leash isn’t going to calm her down. Besides, if and when we go on a deployment, she must be in top physical shape. She searches for people trapped in rubble, and if she was overweight and out of shape, she couldn’t do her job. If I was a runner, on leash might be fine, but I’m not. So, we hike. Now, before you take your dogs hiking off leash they should come when they’re called, and heel off lead. If those skills aren’t in place leash up your dog!

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My sweetie Rook. Good and tired!

Where should I try off leash?

Start in your backyard. Once your dog can heel and come when called in a familiar place with few distractions, move to an empty dog park. Then try the dog park with a couple of dogs. Once the off lead heel and recall are strong, look for a trail, and try it without your dog first.

Things I consider when hiking with dogs:

  • What’s the length and elevation gain? (The difficulty level you choose should depend on the fitness level of you and your dog. Start slow! Your dog gets sore too!)
  • Is it a loop? 
  • What’s the completion time?
  • How many people are on the trail? 
  • Are there other dogs on the trail?
  • What should you do if you see another person on the trail?

What should I do when my dogs are off lead and I see someone?

I call my dogs to me and make them sit. I would like to tell you that since you’ve practiced at home and in a dog park, your dog will come to you without a hitch on the trail. It’s unlikely. Hiking is exciting and so are new people and dogs. For any dog to learn a skill it takes repetition, meaning hundreds of times in multiple locations. So, consider your first hike another opportunity to practice. Which means you must have positive and negative consequences ready.

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The positive consequence I use is a treat. Yum. I carry Zuke’s in my pocket. My dogs are total piggies, so they would come for a piece of banana, but I like this particular brand/flavor because the treats smell like peanut butter, are low calorie and small.

While I would love to tell you that a treat is enough, it isn’t. When my dogs don’t come, they get a consequence. For Quincy, I use Cesar Milan’s technique of grabbing her by the neck and giving a quick shake. Then I pull her to the spot where I stood when I called “here” and make her sit. Once she holds the sit for a few seconds, she gets a treat. I don’t have to do this much anymore. Quincy is one smart cookie and comes when I call her. Plus, she’s eleven. She’s had years of training.

Kinsey started life as a hunt dog, and so she was professionally trained on an ecollar. Whenever we’re out hiking, she has her ecollar on to keep her safe. (An ecollar is a collar that gives a mild electric shock when I press a button on the remote I wear around my neck. I use Dogtra.) Some people oppose ecollars, but if I see a coyote or snake or vicious dog, Kinsey must get back to me fast. An ecollar does that. Honestly, when Kinsey is wearing her ecollar, she behaves very well and I rarely need to correct her.

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The point of any reward or consequence is to develop the behavior you want to see in your dog, and then gradually diminish the reward/consequence until the behavior is offered automatically. At this point, Kinsey and Quincy know the routine. So, when they see a person or dog on the trail, they come and sit next to me. I don’t have to do much. Do they occasionally make a bad decision? HECK YEAH. But, they get a quick correction and then shape up. No dog is perfect. Mine included.

Once you establish routines and expectations it’s so much fun to take your dog out! So, spend the time working with your dog, and then take her out for a hike. It’s so good for both of you! Besides, when you get home, your dog will be so exhausted you can watch all the episodes of The Arrow on Netflix that you want…

Next post is all about the gear I take in the car and on my back when I hike. I’m very good at spending money, so stay tuned!

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