I used to be so envious of all those riders and trail runners, cruising down the trails with their dogs right behind them, off leash, the entire way! I remember thinking to myself, “How do they train their dogs to be able to run like that? Every dog I know would be off running into the woods at the first sign of a squirrel and never come back!” But I was determined, that one day, once I got a dog of my own, that it’d be the best adventure dog. Fast-forward a few years, my girlfriend, Court, and I have our own little adventure pup. And his name is Gregor.
Gregor is a Springer Spaniel-Red Heeler mix, and as of right now, 14 weeks old. So far, we’ve been on countless hikes, trail runs, and yes, even bike rides together off leash! Full disclosure, I am no dog trainer, nor do I pretend to be. But is my first dog, and maybe we just got lucky that he picked up this trail etiquette so quickly. Court, grew up with dogs and always remembers hers being well trained and not needing a leash as well. I just wanted to share how trained him and maybe it can help you train your pup as well.
Before getting the dog, I asked everyone I knew and anyone I’d see on the trail with a dog some pointers on how they trained their dog (both the good ones and bad ones). In addition, I constantly picked Court’s brain about her experience with her dogs. What I found to be the most common bit of advice was to expose them to the same trails as early, and as often as possible. Just like where you take them for a morning walk, they get used to a routine and don’t feel the need to explore every little thing as the days go by. We exposed Gregor to the same trail that is right in our neighborhood, over and over again. I find the trails to be a great learning ground for all training because it much more confined than an open field or park for them to roam around and get distracted. He can only go so far before he runs into a thick brush or hill side. And after a few hikes of him behaving well and not needing to smell every bush, I decided to take the next step. Losing the leash.
I was very nervous at first, but after constantly seeing most of the other people walk around with their dogs without a leash, I figured they all had to start somewhere. On our way back from an out-and-back hike, I knelt down, had him sit, and unclipped the leash from his collar. I expected him to take off like bat out of hell with his new sense of freedom, but he didn’t do anything. He sat there looking at me. I reaffirmed his good action with a treat, held another one in my hand and just started to walk away. He followed right behind me for the next few yards. And once he started to lag behind too much due to some exploration or run ahead to see something else, I’d yell his name to come for a treat. I made sure to give constant “good boys” when he stayed close to me and he slowly started to pick it up. But it’s still a work in progress, even after 1 month of trail work.
I do not have the dog training ability, or know-how, to get my dog to stay within an arms reach at all time. Fortunately, we tend to stick to the trails that are mostly empty and go at off-times to reduce some of the distractions. But we make sure to not let him just roam, so he doesn’t get the wrong idea that he has complete freedom. If he lags behind, we make sure we’re giving him constant calls or whistles to pick up the pace or catch up. But when he gets ahead of us, it’s no time for games. They are serious calls by his name to make him stop where he is, and some times we tell him to sit. But if it looks like he was about to take-off further than our range where we can see down trail, we stop walking and make him come back to us to show him that it wasn’t okay. And so far, the training has been successful.
Maybe this is all luck, and he’s a smart dog that knows how to follow a scent or person, and we really didn’t train at all. Because I bet some of you who are reading this believe this is entirely unrealistic, and a pipe-dream if I think all dogs can do this. And maybe it is, maybe some dogs will never get it. But after living in a mountain town for a while now, the dogs up here just seem to behave so well off their leash. I thought to myself that there’s no reason why my dog can’t learn to be like that. So I trusted my dog that he’d want to stay near us because we are his humans, made sure we always had treats nearby, and let him go!
Concurrently, I’ve been taking him on trail runs and bike rides. Dispite what you think, I’ve found these to be easier than taking him on hikes. I think it’s easier because the pace is picked us. They only have time follow along with you, otherwise they’d fall behind if they veered off to explore. We always go back to the same trail, and start out with the leash on. At first, he’d run around me while running or on the bike and the leash would get caught, which helped him realize he was getting in the way. Then, just like hiking, on our way back down the trail I unclipped his leash and rode in front of him, yelling for him to “come”. He immediately followed. We were headed back down the same stretch of trail, just in the opposite direction, so he was familiar enough to just stick behind me or go in front. Even though the bike intimidated him, he’d ran close by me. Every little bit, we’d stop for him to catch his breath and I’d give him a treat. The trail is a wide singletrack, which allows him to run up on either side of me, or wherever he feels comfortable. But I have found a narrow singletrack trail is even better to teach them on, since it reduces, even further, their ability to veer off the trail. And going on the out-and-back trails help keep them familiarized with which direction to go when they come to a junction or another trailhead. Plus, I’m sure he realizes that we’re going the direction of “home”, where he has his toys and bed that he loves, so it goes much smoother.
Don’t worry, it wasn’t a perfectly smooth training program we’ve had him on. He’s tested range on countless hikes, seeing how far we’ll let him go before we call him back. And it’s tough, disciplining our pup when he doesn’t listen. And it’s frustrating, because we know he can listen very well to all our commands most other times. But he can get stubborn, just like anyone else, and through perseverance we are all making progress together. The hardest part for me was cracking down on every slip up and the ignoring of a command. At first, I thought I could let the little things slide here and there, but I was told that we needed to be diligent and persistent about letting him know what was good, bad, acceptable, and forbidden. Eventually, they pick it up (or so I’ve been told).
After 4 weeks of the training, he’s confidently trots along side of us on hikes, and runs with us on trail runs and bike rides on our local trails and even one trip up to Jackson, WY. We tend to pick him up when we come up to a group that have dogs, otherwise he’ll want to play and we’d never get anywhere on a hike. Additionally, we make sure to get his attention before we come up on another group and tell him to “come” or “stay close” when we pass the other groups so he knows that he should keep walking and that it’s not time for play. It works a majority of the time, that is, until someone sees how cute he is and bends over to pet him. He’s a sucker for being the center of attention.
Nevertheless, he’s still a pup, so he’s got a long way to go before we can put on some real miles. Right now, we regularly go on 1-5mile hikes, and 2-4 mile runs/bikes. Bringing water and a bag of his kibble (treats), helps a long way. Not for just the positive reinforcement, but to give him energy. Our vet recommended this since puppies bodies can’t release glucose on demand when needed during exercise, so the energy boosts from the kibble helps with that. Overall, training Gregor has been a rewarding, but frustrating experience. He’s tested our patiences nearly every time we’ve gone out, but it’s all worth it when he’s running along side of us, tongue hanging out his mouth, and that happy look he gives back up to us! I can’t wait for the first time we get to take him backpacking with us in the backcountry and a long day of bike riding!
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