Hiking with a Reactive Dog

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Cody, my reactive dog, taking in the view after scrambling to the summit of Grizzly Peak.

I love my dogs, I love mountains, and I especially love both together. I love taking my pooches on all kinds of outdoor adventures because they love it just as much as I do. I can see a switch go off in my dogs when we hit the trails; they are engaged, sniffing, exploring, stomping over everything, rubbing themselves on all kinds of surfaces (…sometimes poop) and just being dogs. They deserve this recreational time as much as any dog who is trapped in a city for most of the week.

My dogs both have very different personalities. Buffy is a happy go lucky dog. She is what people think of when they think of friendly dogs. She happily greets everyone she meets, she loves getting in for petting, she smiles, and will play fetch with anyone. Cody has a very different personality. I rescued Cody when he was roughly 6-8 months old. He had not been properly socialized and the world terrified him. We worked hard on changing that and today he can go for a walk on a busy city street and usually warms up to strangers within minutes. He is especially at home in the wild, hiking, camping or whatever activity I have taken him along for. For years we frequented dog parks at peak times for him to play and he was a pro at never getting into trouble. Then it all changed. Around 4 years of age, he started to show signs of reactivity towards other dogs and since then I’ve considered him a “reactive dog”. 

Reactive dogs are dogs who react to stimuli (usually the presence of other dogs) in one of two ways, they are too excited and over the top (think the dog who almost harasses other dogs at the dog park to play and their owners can’t get a handle on them because they can’t think of anything else) or scared/under confident which turns into “get them before they get me” type of reaction. The “get them before they get me” is what most people would call “aggression” however there isn’t an intent to be “mean” or “bad” in the way that people think of when you use this word. Instead what the dogs are doing here is trying to intimidate the other dog into staying away before they notice how scared they are. Dog to dog disagreements never look good. In fact to most people, a small disagreement usually looks like the dogs are trying to eat each other. It’s loud, fast and snarly. But if you slow those negative interactions down, what we usually see are dogs snapping and snarling but never making contact. Sometimes contact does happen, but believe me when I say that if a dog wanted to bite and do damage, it would. In my experience, reactive dogs rarely do any kind of physical damage and if they do it tends to be minimal and comparable to accidental bites that happen in regular dog play. The description above is what I would use to label reactive dogs, and when you own one, it will completely change your perspective on dog to dog interactions. 

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Cody, hiking in Jasper National Park.

What is it like to hike with a reactive dog? 

When I go hiking with my dogs, I bring my regular safety supplies, water, snacks and poop bags for the dogs. But the most important tool I bring is a leash. My dogs are rarely unleashed while hiking and this isn’t because they don’t have a good recall (they do). This is for 3 main reasons: 1) if I’m on a busy trail I know I might run into people with other reactive dogs or people that just don’t like dogs and I want to respect that, 2) that’s generally the rules for the maintained trails and parks I visit, and 3) wildlife. For obvious reasons dogs and wildlife don’t mix. Generally one of two things happens when dogs interact with wildlife, they harass wildlife which can be dangerous for both the dog and the wildlife, or they bring wildlife back to you. Several years ago there was a woman in Alaska who was walking with her dogs off leash in grizzly territory. They came running towards her with a grizzly in tow who attacked her. She survived, but it goes to show that you should never think you are safer around bears with a dog.  Full disclosure, on occasion, I have broken the rules and let them run free. But it’s usually in a meadow, where I can see if there is any wildlife and it’s not busy with people.

What my leashes do not help with, is  encounters with off leashed dogs. I never realized the impact of walking your dog off leash in a leash zone before I had a reactive dog. Let me describe what happens to me on a very regular basis as I try to hike and enjoy the outdoors with my dogs on leash. I’m heading down a hiking trail, or up, usually in the woods, and suddenly I see a dog standing on the trail ahead. Often ahead of its owner. It stops and freezes and stares down my dogs. My stress rises immediately, will this dog be friendly? Will the owner recall it? Will the owner be able to recall it? I notice the reaction in my dogs as well. They are trying to read the dog ahead and see if it is a threat. Buffy’s body language usually relaxes quickly, but Cody’s gets stiffer. He is scared. He knows he is leashed and trapped. He can’t escape and so he knows he might have to “get them before they get me”. I usually start to tell the other dog to stay away. Then the owner appears and usually scrambles to come grab their dog and apologizes. But often they shout “it’s ok! My dog is friendly!”. I can’t tell you how much that phrase irks me. Just because your dog is friendly, does not mean it should come trampling over to my dogs. Leash reactivity (when a dog is reactive on leash due to being unable to escape) is very common and not an issue that only reactive dogs deal with. So even if your dog is friendly, them trotting over to a dog who is leashed is just plain unfair to the leashed dog. The leashed dog you encounter with your off leash dog may be nervous, uncomfortable, even terrified of your friendly dog. 

This is a perspective that I’ve only had for a couple of years. I used to think my off leash dogs never bothered anyone but the reality is they did and I share outdoor recreation spaces with a lot of other people and other dogs who all equally have a right to those spaces. Reactive dogs need exercise and they need the outdoors as much as other dogs, arguably even more. It’s important to share the space and obey the rules of the outdoors so that we don’t lose access to these spaces with our dogs. There are already a lot of parks which have started banning dogs, I don’t want that trend to continue. We should all just adventure responsibly with our best friends. 

Tips for hiking with a reactive dog?

So how do you hike with a reactive dog successfully? Firstly, if your dog is fairly reactive – when you see another dog your dog pretty much always lunges at the end of their leash and barks – then, if you have access to a positive science based dog trainer, it is worth every penny to invest in some reactive training. Some training facilities have reactive specific classes where dogs can work in an environment which puts their comfort first and foremost. Those classes will teach you the skills that you need to help your dog deal with their fears. If you don’t have a facility nearby that offers reactive classes, then it’s worth hiring a trainer for some private sessions. Specifically, learning auto-watch is an incredibly important skill, however teaching yourself this skill can be a challenge. In addition, learning about counter-conditioning is also very important. If you’re an experienced dog training dog owner (you understand learning theory, and so on), then Fight! By Jean Donaldson is a great reference but is fairly technical, so it can be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with dog training theory. 

Beyond private training or classes, the best thing you can do is bring high value treats with you to help you re-direct your dog (once they spot that dog, treats go in front of the nose and re-direct them off to the side of the trail with you). A common misconception is that if you give treats to a dog that is reacting, you will reward his reactivity. This is wrong. Reactivity is caused by strong emotions of fear or uncertainty and food can help change your dogs emotions. It will not reward the reactivity.  A good harness to help you control your dog will also be easier on you and your dog (if they are lunging at the end of the leash on a collar, it puts a lot of pressure onto their necks). It is absolutely paramount that you feel in control of your dog when it is leashed, so if this is something you are struggling with by only using a collar, a front clip harness should help. Something like the Easy Walk, or recently I started using the Ruffwear Front Range harness since it has clips both in the front and the back. Either option will work, but the most important aspect is the ability to clip the front. As the dog pulls, a front clip will turn the body of the dog and reduce its ability to pull. Back clip harnesses encourage pulling from our dogs. 

Most importantly, make sure you and your dog have fun. Hiking should be a fun activity for both of you and if you are too stressed or your dog is too stressed, you should definitely get some training so that you can both be comfortable heading out there. Happy hiking! 

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