Hiking with reactive dogs

Cody, taking in the views on a scramble in the Canadian rockies

I love my dogs, I love mountains, and I especially love both together. I love taking my pooches on all kinds of outdoor adventures because they love it just as much as I do. I can see a switch go off in my dogs when we hit the trails; they are engaged, sniffing, exploring, stomping over everything, rubbing themselves on all kinds of surfaces (…sometimes poop) and just being dogs.

My dogs both have very different personalities. Buffy is a happy go lucky dog. She is what people think of when they think of friendly dogs. She happily greets everyone she meets, she loves getting in for petting, and will play fetch with anyone. Cody has a very different personality. I rescued Cody when he was roughly 6-8 months old. He had not been properly socialized and the world terrified him. We worked hard on changing that and today he can go for a walk on a busy city street and usually warms up to strangers within minutes. But he’s also dog reactive and since he got badly bit by a dog last year, his reactivity has been worse than it was prior to that incident (we’re actively working on this, but as reactive dog owners, this is a process).

What is it like to hike with a reactive dog? 

When I go hiking with my dogs, I bring my regular safety supplies, water, snacks and poop bags for the dogs. But the most important tool I bring is a leash. My dogs are rarely unleashed while hiking and this isn’t because they don’t have a good recall (they do). This is for 3 main reasons: 1) if I’m on a busy trail I know I might run into people with other reactive dogs or people that just don’t like dogs and I want to respect that, 2) that’s generally the rules for the maintained trails and parks I visit, and 3) wildlife. For obvious reasons dogs and wildlife don’t mix.

What my leashes do not help with, are encounters with off leash dogs. Let me describe what happens to me on a very regular basis as I try to hike and enjoy the outdoors with my dogs on leash (in a leash-required area). I’m heading down a hiking trail, or up, usually in the woods, and suddenly I see a dog standing on the trail ahead. Often ahead of its owner. It stops and freezes and stares down my dogs. My stress rises immediately, will this dog be friendly? Will the owner recall it? Will the owner be able to recall it? I notice the reaction in my dogs as well. They are trying to read the dog ahead and see if it is a threat. Buffy’s body language usually relaxes quickly, but Cody’s gets stiffer. He is scared. He knows he is leashed and trapped. He can’t escape and so he knows he might have to “get them before they get me”. I usually start to tell the other dog to stay away. Then the owner appears and usually scrambles to come grab their dog and apologizes. But often they shout “it’s ok! My dog is friendly!”. I can’t tell you how much that phrase irks me. Just because your dog is friendly, does not mean it should come trampling over to my dogs. Leash reactivity (when a dog is reactive on leash due to being unable to escape) is very common and not an issue that only reactive dogs deal with. So even if your dog is friendly, them trotting over to a dog who is leashed is just plain unfair to the leashed dog. The leashed dog you encounter with your off leash dog may be nervous, uncomfortable, even terrified of your friendly dog. 

Reactive dogs need exercise and they need the outdoors as much as other dogs. It’s important to share the space and obey the rules of the outdoors so that we don’t lose access to these spaces with our dogs. There are already a lot of parks which have started banning dogs, I don’t want that trend to continue. We should all just adventure responsibly with our best friends. 

Tips for hiking with a reactive dog

So how do you hike with a reactive dog successfully? Firstly, if your dog is fairly reactive – when you see another dog your dog pretty much always lunges at the end of their leash and barks – then, if you have access to a positive reinforcement science based dog trainer, it is worth every penny to invest in some reactive training. Some training facilities have reactive specific classes where dogs can work in an environment which puts their comfort first and foremost. Those classes will teach you the skills that you need to help your dog deal with their fears. If you don’t have a facility nearby that offers reactive classes, then it’s worth hiring a trainer for some private sessions. This can even be done virtually!

Beyond private training or classes, the best thing you can do is bring high value treats with you to help you re-direct your dog (once they spot that dog, treats go in front of the nose and re-direct them off to the side of the trail with you). A common misconception is that if you give treats to a dog that is reacting, you will reward his reactivity. This is wrong. Reactivity is caused by strong emotions of fear or uncertainty (sometimes frustration) and food can help change your dogs emotions. It will not reward the reactivity.  A good harness to help you control your dog will also be easier on you and your dog (if they are lunging at the end of the leash on a collar, it puts a lot of pressure onto their necks – this is not good for them). It is absolutely paramount that you feel in control of your dog when it is leashed, so if this is something you are struggling with by only using a collar, a front clip harness should help. Avoid temptation to reach for tools like a choke collar or prong collar. If you are struggling to find something that works for your dog, reach out to me and I can offer suggestions.

Once you have redirected off to the side of the trail, an “emergency scatter” is a great tool in that moment. Grab a handful of treats and throw them to the ground so they scatter. You should be at a distance (when possible) where your dog can focus on finding the treats and not the dog passing by. If you’ve been working with a trainer and are practising a look-at-that protocol, the side of the trail could be a good spot to practice that if you think you will be successful. Otherwise, scatter those treats!

I also recommend teaching a directional change cue. I use “this way” with my dogs and it cues them that we’re changing direction immediately and they have to look at me to see where we are going. To teach this, practice at home, somewhere without triggers, and have high value treats and a leash. Walk around with your dog and then say “this way” and immediately put a treat to their nose and lure them into a directional change with you. Keep practising this until your dog starts to get excited when you say “this way” or whatever you called the cue (fun alternative cues for this skill include “abort!” “oh shit!” or “nope!”). Eventually you won’t need the lure, but for the first few times, use that lure to get them super excited to follow you.

Finally, what do you do if an off-leash dog runs up to you and the owners are nowhere to be seen? Throw dog treats/food as far as you can behind them and try to get out of there while yelling for their owners to get their dog. Yes, that dog could have a food allergy, but if their guardians were worried about that, they wouldn’t let them hike ahead of them in an on-leash area (also presumably busy area). This is the safest option you have.

Lastly, make sure you and your dog have fun. Hiking should be a fun activity for both of you and if you are too stressed or your dog is too stressed, you should definitely get some training so that you can both be comfortable heading out there. Happy hiking! 

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