I have the pleasure of introducing Luna C. Lupus from the blog Mother of Rescues on today's guest blog post. Luna lives in Slovenia! She writes about her experiences with challenging rescues, and her blog is a source of emotional support for those living with reactive dogs. Here is her article:
Hiking together with your four legged best friend has got to be one of the most gratifying experiences. Your dog has the opportunity to run and explore and you are right there with him, adventuring alongside, taking in the beauty of mother nature. I love hiking; it is good for my mental and physical health. I also have a reactive dog who enjoys hiking, but doesn’t enjoy other dogs or children. I’ll be honest and say that it’s sometimes a challenge - we’ve been known to pass on a family hike a couple of times in the past, because of her issues. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hike or that we don’t enjoy it. On the contrary, hiking gives us an opportunity to bond with each other even more and push the boundaries of our comfort zones.
If you are wondering how can we have a relaxed, fulfilling hike when Bailey is reactive, the answer is that we have a system in place that doesn’t fail us! Over the past four years I have learned valuable lessons and developed strategies that have made life for Bailey and myself much easier! Follow along these five very important steps and your reactive dog will have a much better time on your hikes!
1. Do your research
I never ever hike to a place that I hadn’t researched beforehand. I used to, and it usually ended up with my dog being triggered by situations I wasn’t prepared for. Your research can include reading online reviews of the trail or simply asking family and friends about their experience. Ask about off-leash dog policy, ask if the trail tends to get crowded, ask about little children. All of these things are super important. Bailey and I don’t hike on the weekends because there’s usually just too many hikers and she would feel overwhelmed. We also avoid trails that we know have a lot of off-leash dogs. Sometimes this means my family members choose a really popular trail and Bailey and I have to pass. But that’s okay! Remember that your dog’s well-being comes first and that you can always find a trail that works for you. You can even go and check out a trail by yourself, without your dog, and see for yourself if he would feel comfortable. Research is everything and it will heavily impact the quality of your hike.
2. Make the hike mentally stimulating
For most dogs, hikes are mentally and physically stimulating in and of itself. They get to run wild, explore the surroundings and honestly have the best time! But for a lot of reactive dogs, it isn’t so. They can feel overwhelmed in a new environment, scared and overly cautious. I used to worry about Bailey so much because she never wanted to sniff the ground. She didn’t feel like exploring, because she was too afraid. We started to do other activities, just to get over this initial overwhelm; you can do nose work, basic obedience, hide and seek, practice recall, play tug, have them chase a ball etc. It’s all about mentally stimulating them, so they can relax and recognize that they are in an environment where good things happen!
Once they start associating the trail with positive things, they will be more eager to explore it on their own. Allow them to sniff the ground, run around, explore the surroundings however they like. You will be surprised by how much confidence this builds in them!
3. Be prepared for possible triggers
Life is unexpected. Even if you are hiking on a Monday morning at 7am, on a trail where leashes are mandatory, chances are you can run into an off-leash dog. Always be alert and observant of your surroundings, so that if you notice a possible trigger approaching, you can take care of your dog - meaning, get some distance in between you and the trigger or counter-condition, depending on the level of your dog’s desensitization and training.
4. Recognize when your dog has had enough
Sometimes you come to a trail and it’s not what you had expected. Like I mentioned above, life itself is unexpected. You did your research, but something just happened on the trail that you didn’t see coming. That’s okay. Simply check in with your dog to see how he’s feeling. If you can keep on going, that’s amazing. But if he is really having a hard time, don’t feel bad about turning around and going home or to a different place.
Remember, your dog’s well-being comes first. Don’t push him into something just because you drove to the place one hour or this is your first hike after a crazy month at work or you’re with your friends. No! If your dog isn’t enjoying the hike anymore it’s time to end the hike. The point of hiking is to enjoy it, to be adventurous and happy. This means your dog, too. Especially one who needs a bit of special treatment. I know some people will disagree with this philosophy and say “It’s a dog, he’ll get used to it eventually,” but I think you owe it to your dog to make sure he is feeling safe and content. I’m not saying it’s a pleasant situation when you have to end a hike sooner than you’ve planned, but your dog trusts you to take care of him and take care of him you must.
Most of your hikes will, I believe, go really well. Implementing these strategies that I have described above, there’s little room for mistakes. I am absolutely certain that you can enjoy hiking with your reactive dog. But once the hike is over, however amazing it was, your pooch needs to decompress. They have just been in a new or stimulating environment, they were mentally and physically active, they did so well and now they need to rest. Allow them to relax in a space that they feel 100% safe in, such as a crate or their bed.
Give them a few hours of no triggers, no stimuli, no asking things of them, no visitors, nothing. They just went hiking and it was awesome - now let them decompress. It is essential for their happiness and mental stability. When you come home from work, you need to rest a little and leave the work behind, even if it was a really good day. Reactive dogs are very much the same; even when they have an amazing day and it all goes well, once they come home, they really need to rest.
I hope this article has shed some light on the fact that you can hike with a reactive dog and it can be really amazing! Sure, it takes some management and maybe you’re robbed of spontaneity every now and again, but it is so very worth it! If you have a friend or a family member with a reactive dog, please send this to them! And huge thanks to Danielle (who always writes so beautifully about adventuring with dogs) for being so kind and letting me share this valuable information on her platform!
-Luna C. Lupus