Teaching Trail Etiquette to Dogs

My husband and I are currently living in our motorhome while we have a house built in Colorado Springs. One of our favorite past-times here in Colorado is taking advantage of many dog-friendly open spaces where we can hike. I’ve begun a series of training exercises on these hikes to help Ranger learn some trail etiquette. Here is a behind the scenes look at a recent hike to give you some ideas on teaching trail etiquette to dogs.

On a hike, I typically take both a standard 6′ leash and a 16′ flexi-leash. I know…I can see you rolling your eyes at the thought of the flexi-leash. Very few trainers like them. I agree that the flexi-leash does pose some problems depending on how it is being used. But I find there are some really good benefits to using one on a hike.

ATTENTION/CHECKING IN

If no one is around, a flexi leash gives me the chance to give Ranger some freedom to move ahead of me AND, I get the chance to reward him for checking in with me from a further distance. If he makes the choice to turn and look at me, I will reward him with praise and encourage him to come to me for a treat. This reinforces his behavior of checking in and coming to me when asked.

If I can see we are alone on the trail, I allow Ranger to go ahead of me on a 16′ line

My goal is always to “catch him” checking in with me. I will reward this excellent choice he is making to look at me!

Good boy…here is a liver brownie!

COOLING OFF

In the summer, I typically only walk Ranger in places where I know he can cool off during the walk. That means we walk near water pretty frequently. The flexi-leash allows me to let Ranger get into a pool of water without taking him off leash

Ranger loves to swim and I love that it keeps him cool

WAIT/COME

Since Ranger is still a puppy, he is still learning how to walk nicely without pulling. When hiking areas include steep or rocky grades, the last thing I want is a exuberant puppy pulling me down the mountain. The flexi-leash gives me a safe way to work on “wait” and “come” without taking Ranger off leash. If I encounter a steep downhill slope, for instance, I can ask him to wait while I walk to the bottom of the hill and then call him to me. This keeps both of us safe and gives me a chance to reinforce some of his behaviors.

Ranger waits at the top of a steep hill. I walk to the bottom and then call him.

Good boy!

My use of the flexi-leash is restricted to areas of the open trails where I can see far enough ahead to recognize that no one is coming towards us or approaching from behind. If I see people. I switch Ranger to his 6′ leash. I agree with trainers who say it’s hard to manage a dog on a flexi-leash and I have much better control of Ranger when he is on his regular leash. So I use that one when people are nearby. When I’m hiking I always have my standard leash hanging around my neck so I can quickly change the leash when it is warranted.

My goal when I see people or dogs on a trail is to teach Ranger that he should be calm, walk closer to me, and ignore the other hikers and dogs. Given that Ranger is extremely social and LOVES dogs, this is no easy feat. But with planning and proactive work on my part, he has been doing really well with this part of his training.

PEOPLE

When people approach, I move to the outside of a trail and ask Ranger to walk close to my side. I will reward him heavily with really high value treats. (Typically on a walk I take liver brownies, steak, or chicken because those are treats Ranger rarely gets at other times so he is very willing to work for them on a hike. If your dog prefers toys you could use his favorite toy as a reward too). I start working with him long before the people are close enough to pet him. This helps me set him up for success!

Rewarding Ranger for staying by my side as a person approaches

Good attention! Good boy!

DOGS

My tactic is slightly different when dogs are approaching. Dogs are a much higher distraction for Ranger so my actions depend on how many dogs are approaching and what the approaching owner is doing. There are generally two scenarios: either the approaching dog seems well mannered and under control (meaning they are paying attention to their owner) or the approaching dogs are pulling to greet Ranger. For the former situation, I will treat it the same way as I did with people approaching mentioned above. But more often than not, dogs we encounter aren’t under control or there are multiple dogs. In that situation, I will move completely off the trail, ask Ranger to sit, and reward him heavily for paying attention to me. If I still think there might be a chance he will pull to greet the other dogs, I will also position myself between him and the approaching dogs.

Off the trail, positioned where I will be in between Ranger and the other dogs when they get closer

Needless to say, with all this training going on during our hikes, we don’t go very far! Typically we go only 1-3 miles at a time. I think this is a good distance for a young puppy (Ranger is currently 11 months) and provides plenty of opportunities for training along the way. Plus, it tires him out!

Sleepy puppy

My wish is that everyone on the trail would work with their dog to teach trail etiquette. Hopefully this gives you some ideas!

Got other tips? Let’s hear them.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

16 thoughts on “Teaching Trail Etiquette to Dogs

  1. Is it too obvious to suggest that part of trail etiquette should involve either cleaning up dog poop or training your dog to go well into the woods? An awful lot of people don’t get this!

    • Hi Chris, stay tuned for my next article about what I take on hikes with my dog! I do talk about picking up poop on that hike. Thanks!

  2. Hi! I assume you are using these hikes to teach Ranger to pay attention. I like that! But is there ever a time when meeting up with other people with dogs that you might ask if the dogs can meet? Is this kind of thing reserved for the future when Ranger is dependably trained, or will he never be allowed to greet other dogs on the trail? Is it best to avoid at all times (and forever)? I always want to keep my Georgie safe, so thanks so much for your kind response.

    • Hi Carole, I will sometimes allow my dog to meet but it really depends on where I am. I want my dogs to meet when there is plenty of space for them to move around (and away from each other if necessary) and I find that being on a hiking trail doesn’t usually lend itself to that. Also, Ranger is very dog friendly….in fact, he loves dogs so much that my bigger issue with him is preventing him from greeting all dogs. So I work harder on getting him to pay attention to me on a walk. I will be doing an upcoming blog on how I know when it’s a good time to let the dogs meet

  3. Thank you for this! I’m planning a “summer adventure seminar series” for next summer and have been wondering what to include in the hiking seminar besides the mundane heeling and come. This has some very useful thoughts!
    (PS totally agree about flexi’s being useful when out in the open. PPS Jealous you are moving to Colorado Springs!:)

    • Thanks, Jessica! Your hiking seminar sounds great! I’ll be doing a couple more hiking blogs so maybe those will be helpful too. Good luck with your class!

  4. I’m so glad you are discussing this topic Robin! I am an avid hiker plus dog and belong to a hiking club that includes dogs. I live in Idaho where there are hundreds of trails of all types from city maintained, Forest Service wilderness and BLM governed. Most trails are off leash and shared with mountain bikers and sometimes ATV’s and horseback riders. Since we don’t often encounter these trail users on a day to day basis it often becomes a teaching moment. I am working on specific cues to alert my dog to move off of the trail on his own since he can be at a distance when they approach. Last weekend we experienced endurance trained horses heading towards us at a run so not much time to gather our dogs and pull them off of the trail!
    I have not had the experience YET of encountering wildlife on the trail like rattlesnakes, bears, coyotes and mountain lions to name a few. These are difficult “distractions” to include in ones training plan but are necessary if planning on a hike in deep wilderness. In these circumstances I would think it would be important to have a well bonded relationship and thorough knowledge of how your dog “thinks” and I wondered if you had any thoughts on training for these moments.
    What are your thoughts on dogs carrying packs? We have built up to longer hikes in some regions that offer little to no water and carrying water for yourself as well as your dog plus leashes, treats and other necessities can make for a very strenuous hike for an owner. Thanks again for bringing up this topic. Hiking is excellent exercise and relationship development for humans and their dogs. A great opportunity work with a dog with spacial needs and reactivity issues too!

    • Hi Kelly, because there is always a chance of my dog encountering wildlife, I don’t tend to like having him off leash. To the greatest extent possible, I want to be in a position of seeing anything before he does…or at least at the same time (as opposed to my dog running ahead of me out of sight where he might encounter something). But, if I were to work on long distance safety exercises, I would work on a solid recall (to get your dog to come back to you immediately) and I would also work on a drop on recall or a sit on recall meaning…I could ask my dog to come to me (away from the snake, for instance). If there was something come at me like the horses, teaching a long distance down or sit might also help. But all that takes great practice and you have to work on that without distractions and by building distance first. Then add distractions at a distance and you will need to set up some scenarios to practice it at first. Regarding back packs, I think they are ok to use on older dogs. I wouldn’t use one on a dog under about 12-18 months of age because the dog’s growth plates are still developing. I would also make sure your vet says your dog doesn’t have any medical issues, and I would work up to a weight that is appropriate for your dog as well.

  5. Great article with plenty of helpful tips thank you. I walk my 17 month old lab/collie cross on the beach everyday. It works well on most occasions and she is very friendly towards any other dogs or dog owners. However, if she sees someone walking without a dog she starts barking at them quite fiercely and will not come to me when called. Any suggestions please? She also gives mixed signals- tail wagging, bottom swinging and ears forward inviting someone to pet her but as soon as they lean in to do so she starts barking at them unless they have a dog with them.

    • Hi Loreto, we often find that some dogs don’t enjoy people as much as they enjoy other dogs. The difference is this…when a pet parent is walking their own dog and your dog approaches them, most pet parents aren’t able to pet your dog because they are busy managing or watching their own dog. So the two dogs can interact and the people generally stay out of the way. This is your dog’s comfort zone. However, when there isn’t a dog with the person, that person now interacts with your dog and scares her. I would work on this by managing her a bit more when she is around other people. First she has to be comfortable at a distance (meaning she can relax, pay attention to you, be calm, etc) and then work at closer distances. It might also mean she can only interact for very brief moments at a time (the person says hi and then you take your dog away so you can reward her). I like to reward my dogs anytime other people are nearby so that my dog learns to come to me when he sees people. You want to be able to reward her just for not barking initially which means you may have to walk her on a leash if people are near. You mighta also want to work with a trainer who can do some private lessons to show you some tips on how to best practice all this! Hope that helps.

  6. How did you train him to know where the end of the flex leash is so that he doesn’t take off too far, too quickly and pull your arm off?

    • Hi Lee Anne, that’s a great question! By the time we are working on trail etiquette I have already worked on loose leash walking with Ranger. He knows if he gets to the end of a leash (normally my 6′ leash) that forward motion stops (because I stop walking) until he turns and looks at me. On a long line he does the same thing (and I still will stop walking if he starts pulling). If you have a dog that pulls all the time, I would not recommend using the flexi-leash.

  7. Not a question, just a comment. I have a dog- reactive, child-reactive dog. It’s a huge problem when off leash dogs or kids come running up to Franz. I’m always loaded with yummy (to him) treats which only work up to a point. Some people just don’t get it. “oh, he’s friendly!” they say. “MINES NOT” I shout back! I hate bad- mouthing my dog, who’s doing the best he can! He knows or hopes, I’ve got his back. So this is more of a plea for those of you out there whose dogs are emotionally healthy to remember that some of us have dogs who had a hard start in life and are working on social skills!

    • Thanks, Chris. This is why I work on keeping my dog’s focus on me rather than greeting other dogs/people on walks.

  8. My husband & Go camping a lot with our dogs and are always looking for trails to hike. As I was reading your article, I felt like it was me writing it. It’s exactly what we do. I’ve been really finding so many untrained and rude dogs on the trail lately. I’m going to direct them to your article ☺️

    • Thanks, Pam! It’s nice to know others are managing their dogs well when they are on the trails. It can be a challenge when so many dogs are not under control. I’m glad this might help give you a resource!

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