How to Train and Care for a Trail Dog: Part 1

By: Effie Drew, Long-distance Adventurer and Member of the VetriSquad

Everybody wants an active dog these days. One that will excitedly hit the trails with them, look cute in pictures, and be well-behaved throughout the time outside and rigorous exercise. While some breeds and temperaments may be more suitable for the trails, any dog can become a good trail dog. The key is to give your dog the confidence and skills to handle whatever situations they may encounter out on the trails.

It’s a great life for a dog! I have two trail dogs at home that love to run, bike, hike, and backpack with me regularly. One of them is even an accomplished thru-hiker. These are the tools I use to teach them how to be polite, prepared, and healthy for their active lifestyle.

Get Your Dog Comfortable in their Gear

Start practicing right away in whatever gear your dog will be wearing on the trails. These could be items like a certain leash, harness, backpack, e-collar, goggles, or booties. Begin rewarding your dog for simply being around the gear. Then, let them sniff it, touch it, and finally practice short amounts of time wearing the gear in your yard or neighborhood.

Don’t forget plenty of positive reinforcement! Think of it like this: if you wore a brand-new pair of shoes for the first time on a 10-mile hike, your feet would be wrecked! Allow your dog time to adjust to their gear before you head out on a longer adventure together.

Skills and Commands to Teach

You are the leader in life and on the trails. It’s important that your dog looks to you for direction in circumstances they are unsure about. These are the commands I’ve taught my dogs that allow our time on the trails to be safe and fun. Like all training, these skills need to be constantly reinforced and worked on, even as dogs age and seemingly “have it down” (my 8-year-old Australian Shepard still practices daily). Practice builds confidence and confidence builds trust.

Recall “Come”

This is the single most important command for a dog to learn, hopefully from early puppyhood. Everyone wants to believe their dog has solid recall and can be trusted off-leash. What does solid mean exactly? It means that your dog identifies your command, whistle, or clap as an indication to find you. Not in 30 seconds or 2 minutes, but NOW.

Recall is hard. Not only does a dog need to be able to do this at home, but in stimulating situations like the dog park, beach, trail, or wherever you go. If your dog struggles with this, you can practice it on a long leash (20ft of rope) in your yard or a park first and build from there. The bottom line is this: if YOU are not confident your dog will come when you ask them to, then they shouldn’t be off-leash on the trails where it’s allowed.

There is so much I could say about techniques for teaching good recall, for example reinforcing them to check in on their own and rewarding them when they come, no matter how long after you called them (perfection isn’t always the goal when they are learning).

Finding a guidebook or local trainer to learn from is a great way to commit to good recall with your dog.

Follow or Heel

Whether on or off-leash, it’s so helpful to have a dog who will walk at your side when asked. This is the most useful off-leash command I’ve taught my dogs. The purpose of it is to essentially have them “on a leash, even when not. Under “follow” they are instructed to walk directly at my side or behind me until given the “OK” to release. This can be queued by putting your hand at your side (with a treat) and calmly continuing forward. Reward even small periods of time under follow/heel and work up to longer stretches. This is an incredibly important method to have control over your dog and not an easy one when distractions are around.

“Leave It”

By nature, dogs want to sniff and explore; it’s how they take in the world around them. We want to allow them the space to do this, while also keeping them safe. A mud puddle? Animal? Poop on the side of the trail? Trash? All things we may NOT want our dogs sniffing, eating or drinking. Asking your dog to “leave it” is another valuable skill. You can teach this at home by playing with or throwing a favorite toy and rewarding them for breaking focus on that toy and turning attention to you. On the trail, this may look like leashed walks where you practice “leaving it” to a spot they want to swim or squirrel they want to chase. Make the reward of a treat and your praise better than the thing you want them to leave. This becomes incredibly useful if you are in a place where you are allowed, and have chosen, to let your dog off-leash and there is wildlife they want to chase or a mucky pond they want to swim in.

“Leave It”, Under Follow

This is the most difficult and complex skill on this list, but one I use almost daily. You would use this when you want your dog to both be under a controlled “follow”, while also “leaving it” (a distraction of some kind), whether on-leash or not.

I most frequently use this when passing by other people, especially leashed dogs, when my dogs are off-leash. In using these commands together, you are asking your dog to 1. Follow at your side and 2. Not to approach unless given permission (“ok” is my release word). I practice this by first getting them into a “follow” position, then “leave it” and keeping their focus on me. If your off-leash dog isn’t able to walk by an on-leash dog without ignoring or approaching, they need to be put on-leash while you pass. You don’t know whether that dog is reactive, in-training, injured, etc. and it’s your responsibility to have your dog under voice command in situations like that. This is the command that accomplishes that.

Happy trails!

Effie Drew is a member of the VetriSquad, long-distance adventurer, certified Wilderness First Responder, and founder, owner, and managing director of Maine Outdoor Kids, an outdoor-based adventure program. She has two Australian Shepards that accompany her on various adventures. Some of her noteworthy adventures include the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Follow along on Instagram @babygotbackwoods_