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A Friendly Guide To Hiking With A Reactive Dog

Robyn hiking with our dog Gatsby at James Peak in Colorado

Are you someone who gets up early to walk your dog to avoid other people and dogs? Is your biggest fear an off-leash dog? Do you constantly carry a bag of treats everywhere you go to tempt your dog away from triggers?

You might be a reactive dog parent if you answered yes to any of these questions. And believe us when we say you’re not alone! 

Hiking with a reactive dog can be challenging, but it’s doable and can improve your dog’s quality of life. It may even help your dog learn to be less reactive if done correctly.

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Understanding Reactive Dogs

Dogs that bark, lunge, and growl are often called ‘aggressive,’ but a better description for most dogs with this behavior is ‘reactive.’ 

As the name suggests, reactive dogs react to situations other dogs usually take in stride, such as walking by a stranger or seeing another leashed dog.

Our dog Gatsby who was very reactive next to our neighbors dog Viv, who was also reactive.

Reactivity May Be Based On A Trigger

Reactive dogs usually have a trigger – something that makes them go crazy. Whether that’s a stranger with a funny hat or a rabbit that bolts across the lawn. 

A research article from the Journal PLOS ONE identified 5 significant triggers that affect most dogs:

  1. Fear of sounds
  2. Sociability with humans
  3. Chase proneness
  4. Reactivity to stimuli
  5. Avoidance of aversive events

Reactivity in dogs can range from barking hysterically to pulling you over on the leash while they try to get to the scary thing. And ‘scary thing’ is an excellent way to put it because most reactivity is based on fear.

Reactive Dogs May Be Fearful

Gatsby next to G, who went near him just to annoy him.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about dog breeds. Many think the dog breed, i.e., their genetics, makes certain dogs reactive. This is not accurate.

For example, pit bulls, rottweilers, Dobermans, and German shepherds have a terrible reputation for being ‘aggressive.’ 

However, studies like the one reported in the Journal of Scientific Reports found that small dogs score higher in aggression than medium or large dogs. There’s no scientific evidence supporting the link that certain breeds are more aggressive just because of their breed.

A reactive dog is more likely suffering from fear caused by a lack of socialization or a past experience than simple genetics. A lack of training can also elicit reactive behavior, but not always.

Reactive Dogs May Be In Pain

Gatsby after his fight with the Moutain lion.

Another reason why a dog might be reactive is due to pain. Older dogs tend to be more reactive than younger dogs, and scientists think there may be a link with pain.

Like humans, dogs experience pain as they get older. Their joints hurt, and their body doesn’t work like it used to. This change in their body can cause reactivity and is something to look for.

Joint supplements and a visit to the vet can help alleviate pain and swelling that could be causing your dog’s reactivity.

A Reactive Dog Is Not A Bad Dog

Often, reactive dogs are surrendered to shelters, or worse, because of their behavior. However, reactive dogs aren’t ‘bad’ or ‘defective’ dogs. They have a different way of looking at the world.

If they have a traumatic experience as a puppy, it could shape their entire lives and have nothing to do with how they are raised.

All in all, hiking with a reactive dog is a lot of work. But it’s worth every bad interaction, day, and setback. Reactive dogs are some of the most lovingloyal companions you could ask for.

Prepping For A Hike With A Reactive Dog

Robyn with Gatsby at Ruby Peak.

If you have experience hiking with a reactive dog, you know how daunting it can be to take them out into the world. There’s always a fear of having a bad interaction or that someone will judge you for your dog’s behavior.

Thankfully, dog owners are becoming more educated about the different behaviors of dogs, including reactive ones.

So, how can you prep your reactive dog for a trip on the trails? Dog training is a great place to start.

By the way, packing all your dog’s supplies is one less thing you have to worry about while hiking with a reactive dog. Check out our guide on essential dog hiking gear for a complete checklist.

Find Something Your Reactive Dog Loves

Gatsby was not food motivated but he did enjoy a good bone, especially on top of the mountain.

The first step to preparing your reactive pup for a hike is figuring out what they love most. Is it baconSausage? Or their favorite squeaky toy?

Find out what they love and bring it on EverySingleWalk.

When your dog notices a trigger, give them their favorite high-value treats or a toy. Do this enough, and your dog will start looking at you when they see a trigger instead of reacting.  

Teach Recall

Most trails and outdoor areas require dogs to be on a leash. Still, there are always scenarios where your canine companion might be off-leash or get loose by accident.

Training your reactive dog to come when called is critical to creating a safe hiking environment. There are many ways to train recall, so choose a way that works with your beliefs.

For our reactive dog, we use a combination of positive reinforcement and a training collar that only uses noise and vibration, not shock. We tried positive reinforcement only at first, and after a year, we moved on to sound triggers, which seemed to work more consistently.

Consider The Route

When planning your hike, consider the route carefully. Look for trails with low traffic and minimal triggers that could set your dog off.

Choose a trail with beautiful scenery without many other people or dogs. This will help keep your reactive dog calm and focused on the hike instead of reacting to others passing by.

We have some fantastic tips for mastering hiking with your dog here. It may inspire you for your next adventure with your four-legged companion (or three-legged!).

At the top of Mount Evans.

Build Trust

The relationship between reactive dog and dog parent can be a special bond. Building trust between you and your dog is essential before taking them on a hike.

Instead of getting angry with your dog when they react to something, try to understand what is causing the reactivity and how you can avoid similar future situations. Always praise your dog for victories, no matter how small.

The more your dog trusts you, the better you can read their body language and understand their fears.

Private training and e collar dog training are other options for reactive dog parents. These sessions can help you understand your dog’s behaviors and how to build trust.

Set Your Dog Up For Success

When hiking with a reactive dog, you want to set them up for success. So, what exactly does that mean?

  • Choose a low-traffic trail
  • Avoid places that will cause your dog stress
  • Avoid triggers when possible
  • Reward your dog for good behavior

Setting your reactive dog up for success is essential for their mental health. Avoid putting your pup in situations where they are bound to fail, such as high-stress situations. 

Gatsby hiking in the winter with Robyn.

Use The Right Gear

The gear you choose for your reactive dog is as essential as the boots on your feet or the moisture-wicking shirt on your back. 

  • Hiking Leash: The best leash for a reactive dog has a strong connection point and a handle at the end of the leash and towards the connection point. This gives you complete control of your dog. My personal favorites are Knot-A-Leash Rope and Crag EX Leash.
  • Harness: Use a harness instead of connecting the leash to your dog’s collar. A harness will distribute pressure across their chest instead of around their neck if they are to pull, lunge, or run towards or away from a trigger. The Flagline Dog Harness from Ruffwear is our go to!

If you have a leash reactive dog, a proper harness and leash are vital to a safe and happy hike.

Choosing the Right Trail

Hiking with a reactive dog comes with a few challenges. Okay, a lot of challenges… You have to choose a trail that won’t be too crowded but also allows dogs. 

An overgrown, unkempt trail may have no traffic, but it’s less enjoyable than a beautiful stroll through a popular, well-kept trail. It’s a delicate balance between finding a nice trail and one that works for you and your reactive companion.

Look For Low-Traffic Trails

Robyn hiking with our dog Gatsby at James Peak in Colorado

If you use the AllTrails app, they will list if the trail is heavily trafficked, which can help you decide on a trail. Otherwise, check out websites and forums about the hike to figure out how populated it is.

You may want to opt for trails that are far out of the way or on the outskirts of a park to avoid interactions with other people or dogs.

Another thing to look out for on trails is off-leash dogs. Check the trail rules and ensure that dogs are required to be on leash. Even though some pet parents ignore these rules, it may help eliminate some interactions.

Avoid Dog Parks

This is a controversial topic for many dog owners. Are dog parks really that bad? Let’s talk it out.

When you have a reactive dog, the best thing you can do for them is to set them up for success. This means avoiding situations where they could be triggered and have a reactive episode.

Dog parks are full of unknown dogs, people, and toys. To put it plainly, this is a reactive dog’s worst nightmare. Even if you have a friendly dog, one incident at the dog park can set your pup in the wrong direction for the rest of its life.

Some people have outstanding experiences at dog parks. Still, the truth is, for every happy story, there are about ten horror stories. 

Learn What Your Dog Likes And Dislikes

Pawd chewing on a stick at the local crag.

After a few walks and hikes with your reactive dog, you’ll come to learn what they love while out in the wilderness. Maybe they love laying in a streamswimming in a lake, or trails with lots of sticks.

Figure out the type of trail your dog loves and aim for those routes. Our previous reactive dog, Gatsby, loved laying in creeks. We always tried to go on hikes that had streams meandering through them.

Our current dog, Pawdrick, does not like rocky terrain, so we try to avoid that whenever possible.

On the Trail: Managing Your Reactive Dog

How you respond to your dog’s reactivity can determine a good hike from a nightmare. It’s important to understand that reactive dogs aren’t behaving that way to make your life harder – they’re doing it because something makes them uncomfortable.

Bringing patienceunderstanding, and caring is just as important as packing your dog’s water bowl and treats.

Ready for a road trip and a hike with your dog? Let’s discuss how to manage them on the trails!

Luna loved going up to Gatsby while he was laying on the couch.

Watch For Triggers

If you’re like me, hiking with a reactive dog is mostly just scanning your surroundings for potential triggers. Is that a person up ahead, or worse, a person with a dog?

Keep a close eye on the trail, both ahead and behind, for possible triggers that will set your dog off. While avoiding every trigger is impossible, seeing them from far away gives you time to manage your dog correctly.

Give People And Dogs Space

When a person or dog approaches you on the trail, remove your dog from the trail and allow them to pass with plenty of space.

Hiking with a reactive dog is about managing fears and mitigating harmful interactions. Notice that I didn’t say eliminate…it’s impossible to avoid all triggers on a trail. The key is managing them when they come along.

Removing your dog from the trail and giving them lots of treats and praise will improve the situation and teach your pup that it’s okay when another person or dog walks by.

Redirect Their Attention With Treats

Food-motivated dogs are a blessing. They’re easily distracted by a high-value treat and may even ignore a trigger if it is tempting enough.

Always bring your pup’s favorite treats, no matter how long or short a walk. As a trigger approaches, distract your dog with food to de-escalate the situation and redirect their attention.

What About Dogs That Aren’t Food Motivated?

Our current dog, Pawdrick, would abandon my husband and me if someone had food. We have no doubt. He is incredibly food-motivated, and we’ve used this to help his reactivity.

However, not all dogs are food-motivated, so how do you distract them?

  • ToysSome dogs that aren’t food-motivated are very playful and can be distracted by their favorite toy.
  • Praise: Dogs that aren’t food-motivated or toy-motivated may benefit from praise for good behavior. If your dog sees another dog and doesn’t immediately bark, shower them with ‘good boy/girl’ and pets to reinforce the behavior.
  • Clickers/Noise Training: Using a clicker is another option for dogs that aren’t food-motivated. Train your dog to respond positively to the sound of a clicker or other noise to help distract them around triggers.
  • Playtime: Sometimes, playing with your dog is what they love the most. Use this to your advantage by tempting your dog to play when they see a possible trigger.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding the right treat for your dog. Try various treats to see what your dog loves the most. Our previous dog was not food-motivated, but we discovered that barbeque pulled pork would almost always work!

Hiking With A Reactive Dog such as Gatsby was difficult.

Be Firm With Other Hikers

People who have never had a reactive dog often don’t understand that there are reactive dogs out there. They let their dog off-leash on trails and yell, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” as their dog barrels toward you.

It’s essential to be firm with other dog owners and hikers. Let them know your dog is reactive and to stay away or keep their dog away. When someone asks to pet your dog, politely tell them that he or she is reactive to strangers and cannot be petted. 

Kids are often unaware that some dogs are reactive and will run right up to dogs without a care in the world. Be firm, tell the kid or parent to stay away, and continue walking with your dog. 

Don’t Feel Guilty Or Ashamed

Most reactive dog owners have felt the guilt or shame of a bad interaction with another person or dog. You may feel like it’s your fault for your dog’s behavior or that you’re a bad dog owner because your dog is reactive.

Don’t go down the rabbit hole! Reactive dog owners are often the most lovingcaring pet parents out there who want nothing but the best for their dogs.

Don’t feel guilty or ashamed of your dog’s behavior. In fact, many people today are very understanding of reactive dogs. They will give you the space you and your pup need to feel comfortable.

Remember, it’s okay if things don’t go perfectly on a hike.

Post-Hike Care For Reactive Dogs

When the hike is over, you can still do some things for your reactive dog to make the experience more enjoyable.

Stick With Your Dog

Dogs that experience stressful situations typically have high cortisol levels. This is a natural steroid that helps your dog combat stress and helps with other bodily functions.

The presence of your dog’s favorite human (you!) has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and can help your dog recover faster from a stressful event.

Gatsby laying in the sun in the green grass.

Give Your Dog Time To Recover

While you might be excited to go on another hike with your dog the very next day, your reactive dog may need longer to recover from an event.

It can take up to 72 hours for your dog’s cortisol levels to even out. For reactive dogs, it may be better to wait a few days before going out on another big hike.

Give Them TLC

Shower your pup with love and affection after a stressful event. Even if the hike went perfectly without bad interactions, your dog could still use some TLC to show them that hikes can be a positive experience.

We like to reward our dog with a pup cup after a hike. Most local ice cream parlors or coffee shops offer pup cups that are either a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream or a cup of whipped cream.

Get yourself a treat while you’re there – you deserve it!

Hiking With A Reactive Dog – Our Final Thoughts

Robyn, Jarrod, and Gatsby on the top of Square Mountain.

For all the dog parents out there with reactive dogs, know that you’re not alone. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are so worth it. 

A reactive dog’s behavior is usually caused by a stressor or trigger that sets them off. When hiking with a reactive dog, try to identify and avoid these triggers as much as possible. Set your pup up for success! 

Check out our hiking blog for more tips on adventuring with your dog.

Remember, a reactive dog is not a bad dog. Reactive dog owners are not lousy dog parents. With patience, love, and kindness, you can still enjoy hikes with your reactive pup and reap all the benefits of a loving canine companion.

Do you hike with a reactive dog? Got some tips you can share? Let us know in the comments below! Your stories could help other pet parents out there who are struggling to hike with their reactive dogs.


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