Monday, February 3, 2014

6 Essential Skills to Teach Your Dog Before Heading on a Backpacking Trip

A backpacking trip with your four legged friend can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a disaster waiting to happen if you aren’t prepared. Teach your dog these six essential skills to ensure you have the best possible experience in the backcountry.
A good wait is an extremely versatile cue and is essential to having a safe and fun trip. The “wait cue” should mean stop right where you are and do not move until I tell you to. This behavior allows you to safely navigate a slippery or dangerous obstacle while your dog waits patiently on the other site. It is also prevents your dog from bothering others on the trail, and can be used to allow safe exiting and entering of the tent without the dog bolting. Crate games are an excellent way to teach a wait! If you are unfamiliar with crate games, Susan Garrett has excellent information, as well as a DVD about the topic. Practice having your dog wait before leaving the crate, on stairs, and at doors in your house.

All dogs should learn to come when they are called! In the woods this skill becomes even more important. If the leash is dropped accidentally or breaks it is important to know that your dog will come back to you. There are also circumstances when it is unsafe to navigate the terrain with your dog on-leash. A good recall means you can take your dog off-leash, navigate the terrain, and then call your dog back to you. Please follow the leash laws of the area where you are backpacking.

Reinforce your dog every time he comes back to you! A whistle recall is extremely helpful in the woods. It’s a unique sound that you can ensure is always associated with good things and can be easily heard in the woods. Start in a place with minimal distractions, blow the whistle, and give your dog a treat. Your dog will quickly begin to run to you every time you blow the whistle. Gradually increase the distance and level of distraction until your dog will run to you through the resident herd of squirrels. Remember to ALWAYS pay your dog well for coming back with delicious treats or his favorite game.

Navigate Difficult Terrain
Teach your dog to navigate any terrain you may come across before the trip. Research the area and figure out what types of terrain you are likely to see. Dogs should be comfortable crossing streams, climbing over and balancing on rocks and logs, walking through mud, and walking through areas where brush may rub against them.  

Train your dog to be comfortable with walking over unfamiliar surfaces and things that move. Start easy, reinforce your dog with a treat every time he walks over a tarp, grate on the sidewalk, or strange surfaced floor. Progress to climbing on benches, walking across walls and going under rails; dog parkour, also known as urban agility, is a great way to teach these skills! The more strange objects your dog is comfortable interacting with, the better off you will be on the trail. Go to the local park and find some streams, logs, and rocks to play on. Keep sessions fun, and always let your dog choose to interact with the objects.

Mat or Tethering Behavior 
Having a dog that will wait patiently for you to take care of the multitudes of things you will need to do while backpacking can be a serious help on the trail. For one thing, it means you won’t have canine “assistance” in meal preparation and consumption or shelter building (their lack of thumbs makes setting up the tent tricky). It also means that when you stop to take a break, your dog isn’t wasting energy chasing down dinner. Even the most energetic dog will start to get tired a few days into a trip and being tired increases the risk of injury dramatically.

Teach your dog to relax comfortably in a down on a mat. The crate games referenced earlier are an excellent way to teach this behavior as well. Simply use a mat instead of a crate. Mats can be made from anything, ideally something you were already bringing on the trip such as a sweatshirt or sleeping pad. Also, use the crate games to teach your dog to relax when you tether him to an object such as a tree or large rock. This way you can be sure your dog is relaxed and won’t accidentally wander off when you are concentrating on boiling that water just so.

Drinking and Eating On Strange Surfaces And Places
When backpacking, it isn’t often that you will want to pack your dog’s water and food bowl as well as carry all the water he will need for the trip. This is just extra weight that you can reduce through some simple training. Once your dog is used to eating and drinking out of a variety of surfaces, you will find you have a plethora of bowls limited only by your imagination. This can include: cups, plastic bags, rocks, collapsible bowls, etc.

This skill isn’t difficult for many dogs to figure out, but it is something you will want to practice before heading on your trip. Start by moving your dog’s normal bowl to different places around the house and yard. Examples include: on the couch, on the stairs, or in the backyard with the neighborhood squirrel. Do the same with the waterbowl including adding some water from a different place such as a jug you filled up from work. Once your dog will reliably do this, get creative with the bowls. Use a plate, a cup, or a grocery bag molded into a marginally bowl-like shape. If you know what you will be using as a bowl on your trip, be sure to practice with that. Eventually your dog will be unfazed if you ask him to eat his dinner off of that bowl shaped rock on the hillside while drinking out of the bag you are pretending is a bowl.

Handling and Picking Up
Your dog should be comfortable being picked up and carried short distances as well as being touched on all body parts. While we would like to convince ourselves that nothing could ever possibly go wrong in the backcountry, the reality is that things can, and do, go wrong. We can best be prepared for these bad things by planning ahead. This way, if something happens to your dog while hiking, you can carry him out, or at least get a good look at that cut on his foot.

For this skill, it is often easiest to have a helper assist you. Start with areas your dog is already comfortable with you touching (such as a shoulder) and pair that with a treat. Gradually move to areas that your dog is less comfortable with (such as feet). If your dog pulls away, let go and move to an easier area. Continue this process until you can get a good look at all parts of your dog. Now that your dog is comfortable with touching slowly begin wrapping your arms around your dog as you would to pick him up. Just like with the touching, only go as fast as your dog is comfortable. Gradually build up to picking your dog up and moving short distances. Remember to always pair this activity with a delicious treat.

Having mastered all of these skills, you and your dog are now well on your way to enjoying your next adventure. Go outside and have a blast!