Hiking with your dog is an excellent way to improve your relationship and build a powerful connection.
Hiking with my dogs is one of my favorite activities. I love the solitude of the woods and sharing that time with my dogs makes the experience even better. Being on the trails does us good, both physically and mentally.
I know that the idea of letting a dog off leash makes many people nervous. The thought that a dog might bolt and disappear is a real concern for anyone who has not taken the time to train and build a strong, mutually respectful relationship with their canine.
One of the skills I instill early on in my dogs is the idea of “checking in.” When my pups are young, I take them to various safe locations and allow them to lose track of me. Then I drop back and “hide”. When they realize they have lost visual contact with me, they come looking pretty quickly.
It leaves a strong impression, and they learn to stop and check back when we are out and about. It is a great skill to instill because it means that I do not have to manage their behavior constantly when we are in the woods. They have learned some self-accountability to keep an eye on me rather than me having to do all the work.
You’ll notice in this short video that my youngest dog, Diva, had apparently hung back on the trail, likely distracted by some smell. She came barreling to catch up. Then when she over shot my location and went out of sight, it did not take long for her to venture back on her own. All this happened without me saying or doing a thing. She managed her behavior so that she stayed within a safe range of her pack.
My older guy, Tommy, used to do a similar thing by running ahead, venturing 50 yards or so, before turning back and checking in. As he has gotten older though he seems to prefer the comfort of staying pretty close to me.
Dogs are not dumb. Safety in numbers is one of the rules of pack mentality. Turning on that instinct early in a pup’s life naturally brings you some peace of mind for this kind of off leash enjoyment together.
As a general rule, though, this is a skill that needs to be established early on in a pups life. If you do not play the hide and seek game prior to 4-5 months of age, I’d suggest finding an alternative way to teach the idea of checking in. After five months or so it might not be wise to be off leash in the woods with an untrained dog. By that age, many dogs are confident enough to venture off quite a way on their own and could end up lost.
It is relatively easy to teach with some e-collar training, but we’ll save that topic for another post.
Here are a few other tips for hitting the trails with your companions:
Don’t let them out ahead of you when going around a blind curve. Since you cannot see around those blind turns, you never know what might be on the other side. Keep the dogs with you when you approach turns in the trail that don’t provide you a visual of what’s ahead.
Spritz the coat with a detangling product so that any burs will brush right out. I use a product called ShowSheen. A quick application before we head to the woods means I do not have to spend hours pulling prickly seeds out of the dogs tails when we get back.
Dress appropriately. Here in the Midwest, being in the woods in the fall also means hunting season. I wear blaze orange, and the dogs have either a vest on or a bell attached to their collars. Making your presence known depending on location and time of year is something to be aware of.