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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.