Hiking is an incredible way to build a connection with your dog, and the ability to take your well-behaved dog off leash makes it even more fun. Off-leash dog training is an investment of your time and energy, but with the right tools and knowledge, it’s an enjoyable experience for you and your favorite furry friend.
“Off-leash hiking is a great way to build confidence in dogs of all ages,” says Durango Dog Trainer Amber Pickren, CPDT-KA. “Exposure to new environments is always good for dogs. When you take your dog hiking off leash, they learn how to navigate different types of terrain, how to process different smells, and how to handle new and exciting stimuli.”
Off-Leash Training Comes First
Before your dog is ready to go hiking off leash, he should be fully trained on leash. That means he doesn’t tug when you go on walks and doesn’t lunge when he spots a squirrel or rabbit. For safety’s sake, he should also be properly socialized with other dogs and people, including small children. When these skills are firmly in place, you can begin to work on off-leash behaviors.
The most foundational part of off-leash training is recall—the ability to call your dog back to you.
“You can’t go from basic addition to calculus,” says Amber. “Don’t take things too fast because you want to hurry up and go off leash. Recall is a basic skill that must be fully learned by your dog.”
Begin practicing recall in your backyard or a park with a longer leash. Say “come!” or another recall word in a loud, cheery voice while you begin to run to a spot about 10 feet away. Your dog will naturally follow you. Progress to issuing a “stay” command as you walk away and call out “come!” to encourage him to join you. Do not snap or tug on the dog leash.
Teach recall with positive reinforcement so that his recalls are happy and quick. “Half of the battle with off-leash dog training is to be more reinforcing than the environment you’re in,” says Amber—basically, you need a great treat to offer as a reward!
Zuke’s Mini Naturals Chicken Recipe Dog Treats are wholesome, bite-size treats that feature real chicken as the first ingredient and contain no corn, wheat, soy or other fillers. With less than 3 calories per treat, these are an ideal training tool. Another great choice for off-leash training is Zuke’s Hip Action Peanut Butter & Oats Recipe Dog Treats; these meat-free treats feature peanut butter as the first ingredient. They also contain glucosamine, chondroitin and eggshell membrane that support mobility.
When recall on a long leash is firmly established, you’re ready to practice going off leash in your backyard or park. Work on recall, sit and stay under a variety different conditions. If you ever feel frustrated by the process, slow down and go back to basics. “Make it clear to your dog that if they engage with you, reinforcements will happen and they will continue to have fun off leash,” says Amber.
Hitting the Trails
Now that your dog is ready to hike off leash, it’s time to hit the trails! Make sure you check the trail’s regulations about going off-leash, as it is not permitted in all areas. Always keep your leash in hand, and train your dog to heel and sit whenever you see another hiker.
It’s important to stay present and recall your dog often. Remember that recalling is part of the overall experience for your dog, and he should always be rewarded for good behavior. “If every time you go out into a fun environment you are a big part of the engagement and fun, they will learn that engagement with you is part of that fun,” points out Amber.
Consider carrying different types of dog treats with you; you can offer your dog his favorite when he successfully recalls under very distracted conditions. “The goal is to have them want to work for it,” says Amber. Zuke’s SuperFood Blend with Bold Berries Dog Treats fuel your dog’s adventures with a mix of superfoods like beets, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cherries. They’re the perfect size to fit every trainable moment throughout you and your best friend’s long, rewarding journey together. Give your dog effusive praise, too!
On long hikes, remember to keep your dog fueled and hydrated. Just like people, hiking dogs need water and caloric energy to perform physically and stay mentally focused during exercise. Zuke’s Lil’ Links Duck & Apple Recipe Dog Treats are tasty treats perfect for training. Packed with nutritious ingredients such as duck, apple, rosemary and turmeric, these treats contain no gluten, corn, wheat, soy, or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
Keep in mind that, even though your hiking dog is off leash, it’s still your responsibility to pick up his waste. In addition to dog poop bags, you may want to carry an all-natural flea and tick preventive spray (or ensure he’s up-to-date on his monthly treatments) to ward off any parasites.
Don’t hike when it’s excessively hot or cold, and keep an eye on your dog for signs of exhaustion or overexposure to the elements. Excessive panting, drooling or bright red gums in warm weather or limping or exhaustion in colder weather can signal a serious problem. Recall your dog often for regular breaks.