Hiking with an anxious dog
Hitting the trails with a high-anxiety dog can seem daunting. With careful planning, informed choices, modifications, some patience, and a little flexibility, it can be a worthwhile experience for everyone. Even with the added hurdles, I find that hiking with my dog is more motivating and rewarding than going alone. It can help people slow down and enjoy the journey and their surroundings more.
When choosing a suitable trail for a dog who tends to be anxious and fearful of new people, animals, and situations, I consider several factors. For Ivy, I make sure the trails we are headed to are dog friendly but on-leash. This way, we avoid added stress of encountering off-leash dogs whose behaviours we cannot predict or control. I opt for quieter, lesser-known spots and avoid tourist destinations altogether. Additionally, avoiding weekend and holiday peak times and starting earlier in the morning or later in the day, especially in popular locations, can really help the hike go smoothly.
Before committing to a specific route, I always check the distance, elevation gain, level of difficulty, terrain, and time required, to make sure that we are both mentally and physically up for the challenge. Accommodating an anxious dog while hiking can slow down the pace so I budget much more time than I would otherwise.
I prefer loop trails where people tend to move more in one direction as opposed to out-and-back trails where we have more interactions. Large trail networks can also be helpful, as hikers tend to spread out more and I can find quieter routes as we go. Since we frequently pull off to the side, being on wide, open trails with good visibility and no bottlenecks or confined spaces makes the experience much more relaxing for us.
When preparing for the hike, I pack the Ten Essentials for myself and Ivy so we both have emergency and first aid supplies, extra food and water in case we need to stay out longer than expected.
Many accidents involving dogs in the wilderness can be prevented by keeping them on a strong and secure leash and a comfortable, well-fitting harness or collar at all times. In order to physically navigate obstacles as a team, I have to make sure Ivy feels safe and hears and understands my communication/directions. Her cooperation and trust are not only vital to her wellbeing but also to our safety. I steer clear of perilous terrain, especially if Ivy is uncertain.
Prioritizing safety also means keeping the welfare of other dogs and people in mind. Hikers with any concerns about losing control of a reactive dog should work on training, including muzzle training and emergency recalls, in advance. A dog comfortable in a muzzle will feel more secure and stable when muzzled up on a hike leading to greater safety for everyone.
There are several ways to create a bubble of safe space for an anxious dog on the trail. Crossing paths with other groups can be a challenge, especially with a reactive dog. We step off trail to let them pass and minimize potential conflicts. Verbal communication is also necessary, as others may not understand why we’ve stepped aside.
Being a firm advocate and maintaining spatial boundaries is crucial. When loose dogs are not under control, I often ask their owners to recall and leash them. Everyone should be able to enjoy the hike without having to manage other people’s pets.
Trail dog training
Hiking should be as enjoyable for dogs as it is for people. For Ivy, I make sure to have high-value treats and a favourite toy easily accessible. Taking breaks to play can be a great way to blow off some steam and have fun. Keeping the praise and rewards flowing as we hike helps her stay happy and relaxed. I reward her for all interactions with and exposure to others, walking calmly, overcoming obstacles, and following cues in general.
In daily life, practicing loose-leash walking, leave-it, positional cues, and building comfort with obstacles is incredibly helpful for hiking. Working with dog trainers has helped us build a strong foundation over the years through training and behaviour modification, without punishing reactions and warning signs or using aversives.
When hiking by myself, I focus on my immediate goal of reaching a rewarding destination. However, when I’m hiking with Ivy, I prioritize the long-term goal of helping her feel as comfortable and confident on the trail as possible. I would rather take it easy and have a positive day together than overdo it and have a negative experience that could add anxiety to our future hikes.
I’m always observing Ivy’s behaviour and body language and looking for any signs of anxiety and fear, so I can respond appropriately. Every dog is different, but these signs can include panting, dilated pupils, raised eyebrows, ears back, tensing up, shaking, hackels up, tail between legs, lunging, barking, pulling on the leash, whining, etc. It's important to know your own dog and what their individual warning signs are so you can keep an eye out for them.
Sometimes taking a break to decompress and recharge at a quiet spot is all we need. This provides an opportunity for both of us to rehydrate, have a snack, and enjoy the scenery before getting back on the trail. If Ivy is really not enjoying our hike for any reason, it’s never too early or too late to reevaluate and take the best route out.
Though we’ve had some challenges, continuous learning, growth, and a lot of patience have enabled me and Ivy to hike with ease. We’ve enjoyed visiting some truly breathtaking spots, and I hope we can continue doing this together for years to come.
Reminder: Always practice “Leaving No Trace” principles when hiking with dogs. Pick up after them and pack out any waste.
Want to see more of Allie and Ivy's adventures? Check them out on social media instagram.com/ivyinthewild
Thanks to our guest blogger Allie Dexel for sharing her experience with an anxious pup. You can read her previous post on road tripping with an anxious dog and check back soon as we share more from Allie on adventuring with an anxious dog.