Note: this article originally appeared on The Trek, which you can read here.
You’ve done it. You’ve finally done it. After years of dreaming, you finally made the decision to take the plunge and bring home your own little bundle of joy. What? Babies? No, I’m talking about this little goofball:
Meet Freya. I know that when we brought her home, I was bursting to take her out and show her the world (and all the hiking trails in it), but some research taught me that there are important steps that you need to take before taking your dog backpacking.
There are many consideration that you need to make before taking a dog backpacking, especially thru-hiking. Try to narrow down what kind of companion you are hoping to get from your dog – do you want to thru-hike with them? Weekend trips only? Breed, personality, and training will all factor into this decision. Below I’ve detailed some essential skills that you need for taking your dog on any kind of hike.
Puppies are babies. You need to take it slow as you introduce them to hiking. Start with 10 minute walks on flat ground. As they get older, increase the length and difficulty of their walks. Not only do they need to build up the muscles to carry them, their paws need to adjust to the wear from hiking long distances or over rough terrain.
That being said, you should not be hiking long distances with your puppy until they are done growing (usually around 12 months for smaller breeds, up to 18 months for large ones). Also, puppies should not be carrying a loaded back before that time (though you can start to accustom them to an empty pack earlier). Before that time, the growth plates in their bones have not fused and excessive activity can cause them serious health problems later in life. This is especially true in breeds with a genetic predisposition to bone problems like hip dysplasia (most large breeds including labs and German Shepherds).
The most important lesson that you can teach your puppy before taking them backpacking is recall (usually known as the “Come” command). Picture this: you’re on trail, and your dog sees a new friend! Another dog! The best thing! She takes off towards them, but that dog’s owner shouts “No! She’s not friendly.” What do you do? Hope she doesn’t figure it out the hard way? Be honest with yourself, is your pup going to come when you call?
Recall is one of the hardest skills to teach your dog, with good reason. You’re asking your puppy to abandon something fun or exciting and come back to you. And not only do you need to train your dog to come when you call, you need to perfect the command by practicing in different locations and with different levels of distractions. When you are backpacking, you need your dog to respond reliably to recall in any number of different situations. It’s a matter of safety.
Here is a fantastic training video to start training your puppy on recall. You should start with a leash (and later a long line) to guide your puppy to you, and reward that behaviour. Then you can add the command, so they associate it with the action. Have a high-value treat on hand that you only use to reward your puppy when they come.
Once you feel confident with both “Stay” and “Come” commands, you can challenge your puppy by playing Hide-and-Seek with them on trail. Tell them “Stay”, go hide out of sight. Call them to you, and they have to practice finding you when you’re out of sight. This is a fantastic skill for if you take them off-leash on trail as they may not always be within your sight. Also, it’s a lot of fun! Be sure to praise and reward them when they find you. You can also play this game at home!
Leash training requires a lot of work and diligence. Here is a great primer on training them to walk calmly on-leash. As with all dog training, it is essential to start on a new skill in a familiar, distraction-free zone. So don’t take a puppy with no leash walking skills on a busy hiking trail and expect much to come of it. Start off at home.
If you are still having problems with your puppy pulling, consider a front-attachment or head-harness such as the Gentle Leader harness. When your puppy pulls in one of these, they get turned away from whatever they’re pulling towards, which frustrates them. A rear-attachment harness actually encourages them to pull more.
Once you’ve mastered leash walking, time to do the opposite! This is a much harder skill, and you shouldn’t test it in public until your recall is perfect. Be sure to check for local regulations regarding off-leash dogs before trying it.
Off-leash walking is really an amalgamation of several skills: walking, eye-contact, and recall. You can build up to this from leashed walking by using a long line (a leash up to 30’ long). That way your dog can wander freely, but if they refuse your recall, you can reel them in. Reward them when you do that to emphasize that coming when you call is beneficial.
You don’t need to train your dog to hike off-leash if you prefer to keep them with you, but there are many benefits to walking off-leash. This allows your dog to explore the area, follow interesting scents, stop on their own to drink from a stream. It also keeps them more mentally stimulated, which is as important as physical stimulation. It also allows them to move at their own pace, falling behind and catching up, or moving ahead and waiting. This is very good for young dogs as it is easier on their unfinished bone structure than the regimented pace that humans tend to walk at.
Once they’ve mastered these basic skills, you will want to add complexity by increasing the Distraction, Duration, and Distance.
Distraction is a way to test your puppy’s attention and skill at a specific command. You can provide distraction by throwing toys or treats near your pup while they’re fulfilling a command. Get a partner to talk or walk by or shake their food bag. If they break from the command, reprimand them immediately (“No” is a common correction) and place them back in the position they were holding before. Alternatively, take them somewhere different and work on commands there. This prevents them from associating the command with the environment you train them in.
Duration means increasing the time between them fulfilling the command and the reward. If they’re leash walking, walk for further before rewarding. For “Sit”, “Down”, or “Stay”, get them to hold the position for longer.
Distance means that your puppy will respond to your commands when you are further away. Build up distance slowly.Just last night I was hiking with my pup (off-leash) and started working on getting her to “Sit” from further away. She was fine with it until I continued walking past her and she sprang up to join me. She understands “Sit” well in a stationary fashion, but I need to work with her to develop that skill in other contexts.
You’ll meet many other nature lovers on trail (and their four-legged companions). Therefore, it is very important for your dog to be well-socialized (i.e. good with people and dogs). This includes not jumping up on people in greeting, playing politely with other dogs, leaving dogs alone who don’t want to play, etc.
The best way to socialize your puppy is to start young. Take them to meet as many dogs as possible. And cats. And people – men, women, and children. Once they are old enough, you can consider taking them to doggy daycare. Some daycares will take them as early as 10 weeks old, while others insist on waiting until they’ve received their full vaccinations (around 16 weeks). If you do send your puppy to daycare, be sure they’re ready to deal with a puppy. While the socialization is good for them, puppies can need as much as 18-20 hours of sleep per day, so the daycare should accommodate that. The daycare Freya goes to keeps her in the main office with a few other calm or small dogs so she could nap whenever she wanted to.
The most important thing about early socialization of your puppy is that it needs to be positive experiences. If you run into another dog owner on trail with your pup, ask if their dog likes puppies before introducing them.
There are lots of other skills that your dog needs to learn on trail. Staying on the trail, ignoring wildlife, trail etiquette for interactions with other people and dogs. One great tip I got from fellow Trek writer Stacia (check out her excellent post about Choosing a Hiking Dog) is to hike with an experienced hiking dog. This ties in perfectly with socializing your puppy, and they will learn behaviours from that dog. I go on walks with two Golden Retrievers who live in my building, and they taught Freya to stay close to me while hiking. She also learned to steal my mittens and run off with them, so be sure to keep an eye out for bad behaviours as well.
Hiking with your dog is a blast. When I was on the PCT, I spent some time in a group with an Australian Shepherd named Bandit. He was adorable, and clearly having the time of his life. His owner, Nate, took really good care of him and they seemed very in tune. Their bond made me envious, and was part of what inspired me to get my own puppy this year. Training a puppy is a lot of work, but think of it as an investment. Put the time and work in the first year of your puppy’s life, and you will reap the rewards manyfold over the rest of their life. Training doesn’t end at one year, but having a solid foundation and a strong relationship will make lifelong learning so much easier.