3 Trail-Worthy Skills to Teach Your Hiking Pup at Home
Here are three essential skills that all good hiking dogs need to know when you hit the trails. They are surprisingly easy to work on in your living room or on strolls around the blog.
No matter how old your puppy is, they never stop learning. So, if you and your doggo are spending more, er, quality time together right now, here is how you can work on their trail skills from your apartment or house.
We're not dog trainers, but a lot of us here at WTA hike with dogs, and these are some of the areas we have found the most useful.
1. Focus work
Getting your dog to focus on you when they are surrounded by trail sights and sounds can be a challenge. But it is well worth the work, when they pay attention to you rather than that super exciting squirrel darting in front of you on a steep, precarious section of trail. It can also come in handy to work on a stronger heel.
You can train a variety of commands in the focus category; think of each one as an extra tool in your toolbox.
- Touch: The most basic focus work, and one very young puppies can pick up. With this skill, you are asking your dog to touch their nose to your fingers (and, of course, get a reward for doing so). This is a fun one that can help you will a stronger heel and can be used to help build up recall. Start up close, and work your way across the room.
- Look at me: One you can build on, from getting your dog to recognize their name to more advanced versions, where they are capable of looking at you when a skateboarder is flying by singing jingle bells.
- Look at that: This is a skill that can be employed to help your dog get used to unusual sights, like other dogs, livestock, kids or hikers wearing funny hats. The basics are: Dog looks at thing, looks back at you, gets a reward. They begin seeing strange things as a reason to check in with you and maybe get something good.
2. Heel & Loose-Leash Work
If you have ever had your pup try to pull you up or down a gnarly bit of trail on a leash, you know just how important having a good, loose-leash heel is for hiking dogs. It can be challenging to work on wide sidewalks or paths, but having a solid heel is THE place to start working on a trail-heel. Here are some tips and games to play to work on it.
- Moving focus: Use your touch skill from above or the name game to keep your dog hovering right at your heel. Treat like crazy, so the zone around your hip is the BEST place for your doggo to hang out.
- No pull walks vs. sniffing walks. Make these different things. Sometimes dogs just gotta sniff out the latest news in the neighborhood. Give them the chance to sniff to their hearts content, and then use the next part of your walk or a designated training walk to work on getting your dog not to pull. The gist is that you only move forward if there is zero tension on the leash. As soon as they let up, you move forward. When the leash goes tight, you stop (or turn around and head in the opposite direction). You might only get a block in 10 minutes, but they'll catch on eventually.
- Follow: If you can construct some narrow spaces to pass through in your home, work on leading your dog through the narrow spaces with them behind you. In short, teach them to follow, which is like heel, but just a bit harder for them. (This is an easier skill for very lazy doggos.)
Whether it is just asking your dog to come back a foot, or to come back in an emergency situation, this is one skill that can always use work.
- With puppies, start small. Have them come back and forth between two very happy people, or into a different room in your house. Be sure you've got rewards on both sides. If you have a longer leash or rope, you can stretch the distance safely in a yard or field. But go slow ... and make coming back the best thing that could ever happen, one hundred percent of the time. The key is to never push past their limits.
- Build in distractions. If you have another person in the house, have them do something interesting that make things harder. You can also add food or toys. Open a window with interesting sounds. Ask a neighbor to go by the window with their dog. If you have a yard, make use of strategic squirrels.
- Treat party. This is the most fun training of your entire day. Once a day, hold a treat party, in which you throw tons of treats (or their normal food) on the floor and shout "Treat party, treat party," in a joyful, excited way. Basically, blow your dog's mind that they are getting so many treats at one time OMG, and you will have the building blocks for an emergency recall.
Is there a skill that's hard for your dog? Once you've mastered it in your living room, give it a try in a new environment. For a very challenging skill, you could simply try it a new room. Once you've mastered that, consider trying it in your yard or on a walk.
Remember, you don't need to do anything extra right now. So, maybe the skill you most need to work on with your pup is naps.
Share your favorite trail skills for very good dogs
These are just the tip of the iceberg. From learning to sleep in a tent to wearing coats or dog booties to getting basic first aid, there are lots of things you can work with your dog on now that will pay dividends when you can safely hit the trails with your best bud. Imagine what kind of adventures you aspire to with your dog, and make a list of skills you want to work on together.
And if you already have a dog who has mad skillz, tell us what they are, and how you taught them in the comments below (or on our social channels, where you can also share the photos we very much want to see).