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Hiking with a Reactive Dog

Written by Kate Lowrey

The term “reactive dog” has become somewhat of an umbrella term to describe behaviors where a dog overreacts to its triggers. This can look like barking, jumping, lunging, growling, intense staring, yawning, urinating and others. This term does not address the underlying emotions that may drive this reaction: frustration, excitement, fear… and a laundry list of others. I start with this because you know your dog best and should decipher what this term means for you and your dog so that you can best set them up for success. I am not a trainer, just a committed dog owner to a pup whose reactivity stems from fear. Keep reading for some of our hiking tips!

Planning a Hike

For picking a trail, I like to think about where Bear is at with his training and what I’m looking to get out of the adventure. Can Bear handle a busy trail? Do I want a training outing or to just to relax in the mountains? Are we going alone or in a group with other people/ dogs?

I use these questions as mental filters for what trails I’m going to consider. Being honest about where you are as a team and your objective for the day is really important for having a successful hike that is enjoyable for both of you. Pick a trail that will help make you successful.

While Bear and I have made a lot of progress in his reactivity and he can handle busier, and more crowded hikes- sometimes I would just rather have a relaxing day in the mountains where I don’t see a lot of other people. If it’s one of those days or even an off week for bear (we all have them) this is what I look for:

  • Wide trails (Jeep trails are a great option in the winter): This is helpful for space even if we have to pass someone there is plenty of room to move away from other groups

  • Lightly trafficked: Steer clear of AllTrails reviews of heavily trafficked trails and popular/ iconic names

  • Leash Laws: If it is not a trail that I know, I will usually pick something that has a leash law requiring dogs to be on leash. Unruly off-leash dogs are an annoyance to all dog owners but for us it’s a big deal. Leash laws can put you at ease knowing that *most* people will abide or at least leash up when you approach.

Hitting the Trails

During the hike how I approach each encounter is very situational. I will do my best to summarize but please feel free to email or DM with questions! On every hike- no matter the leash laws Bear starts out on leash and we do some obedience. This helps us ensure his listening ears are on and helps get him into a calm mindset since he is always very excited for the next adventure.

The muzzle. If there is any question about whether or not Bear should be muzzled for a particular trail- muzzle up. Bear has been conditioned so he doesn’t mind wearing it at all! This simple measure keeps everyone safe, sends a clear signal that you would like more space, and gives some peace of mind (at least for me it does). You can always take it off if it is not needed!

Passing Other Groups

This one is incredibly situational- just people? People and dogs? Dogs on leash or off? So many different combinations!

At this point in our journey if there is an off-leash dog I will ask the owner to leash up, Bear is leashed too if not already. Most people are incredibly kind about this request and we are able to pass each other with no issue. When you come across someone that is a little more inquisitive, you can share as much or as little information as you like. Some phrases I like to use are:

  • We’re in training please do not let your dog approach.

  • I don’t allow on-leash greetings.

  • He is not friendly.

This is the one I use for people who just aren’t getting the point and it is quite effective

You will inevitably encounter THAT person who decides to be rude about leashing their dog- my best advice? Say what needs to be said and continue on with the hike. You will never see that person again, but your dog will remember that you advocated for them every single time so don’t back down.

The Dreaded Encounter

This is the one with an off-leash dog who cannot be recalled. There are a few ways to handle this. This is my preferred method but, in the moment, when the adrenaline is pumping it may vary. Once it is evident that the dog has no recall, I stop talking to the owner and turn all my attention to the dog. I position myself in-between bear and the other dog. This keeps Bear calm because I’m saying, “I will handle this”. At this point I will yell and give the dog a firm no. If this doesn’t work and the dog is still approaching, I will use my foot to keep the dog from getting any closer, not a kick but physically blocking and creating space. We are also working on a bomb proof down stay for bear so I can leave him and intercept the off-leash dog before it can get too close. Many people carry pet corrector or air horns for these situations, but I do not personally carry that with me. How you handle this type of situation will depend on the root of your dog’s reactivity and your personal training goals!

Read Your Dog

For all encounters it’s really important to read your dog and do your best to read the other dogs if possible.

An example: if we are approaching a group and their dog is whining, pulling at or otherwise showing interest in Bear- this can be especially challenging for him. Watching how Bear reacts to this is build up is important- is he responding to this energy? If he’s getting wound up, I’ll pull over and reward good choices that he makes. These could include eye contact with me, breaking his own stare on his own, or simply not reacting. If he’s in calm mindset we pass with extra space if possible- I reward him during this pass by to let him know I like the behavior he is exhibiting.

Know Where You Stand

All in all, it is really important to know where you stand as a team and what kind of day you’re having. Some days it is important to challenge them because they are in a place to handle that and grow from it. Other days you have to stick to what you know and avoid triggers at all costs. Either is completely ok but you have to know which type of day you’re having and be prepared to handle that.

Training off the Trails

Training outside of hiking is the place to build a foundation and increase your skills before you even hit the trails. Practice wearing the muzzle and capturing your dog’s attention in calm environments and work your way up to working around whatever triggers them. Practicing outside of a dog park is a great non-hiking trigger heavy environment that Bear and I use to practice obedience and disengaging. Guiding your dog through stressful situations by showing them what you want them to do will give them a job instead of allowing an overreaction, this will also give them confidence that they can handle the situation. This work is essential so that when you do encounter a trigger your dog will know how you expected them to respond because you’ve practiced!

Again, I am not a trainer, Bear and I are certainly not perfect and always working to improve but this is what has set Bear and I up for success so far. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or comments! If you are struggling with reactivity- reach out to a professional for help, this is not something that you have to tackle alone!

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