Part one, where we talked the handler’s responsibility to make sure the dog is having fun, is over here.
In part two, I’m going to contradict myself.
Let ‘Em Get A Little Tired
We talked last time about how the dog has to be having a good time and the order of my rules does matter; that part always has to be primary. But I also think — and I totally stole this from the horseback endurance crowd — that if your goal is a hiking dog (as opposed to one who goes for nature walks — which is also a lovely and worthy thing to be!) that it’s important to start introducing them to their job early, in bite-sized pieces, and also to the idea that they’re going to be out there for a while.
A tired dog is a good dog, sure, although: not always. Also: too tired is a thing. An overtired Lilo puts herself to bed and stays there until she’s recharged again. An overtired Titus is a frantic, worried, toothy perpetual motion machine. I’m a big fan of exercise and fitness for dogs, but I’m also a big fan of being thoughtful about it and building impulse-control, relaxation, and training games into just about everything that we do, so that the dog’s fitness level doesn’t outstrip his live-with-ability. (That’s the goal, anyway! I’m only human; some days I’m more “on” than others.) So “let ’em get a little tired” isn’t (only) about giving me a chance to sit down and read a book after we hike!
The idea is that what gets dogs (and humans!) into trouble is not being smart. Going too fast too early. Biting off more than they can chew. Humans who can read trail maps and descriptions don’t have a whole lot of excuse. But dogs, as we discussed last time, don’t start the day knowing the plan. So I want mine to be mentally in it for the long haul when we hit the trail. It helps them conserve their energy in case they need it for a long day. It helps them learn to manage their pace, rest, and eating/drinking. It helps them keep their brains in their heads because they’re treating hiking as a job instead of a chance to yahoo around.
It’s not about shifting responsibility for their care. Different dogs are have different capacities to learn this — Lilo’s greatest strength as a hiking dog has always been that she absolutely will not overwork herself, whereas my old Casey dog never would say die — and it’s always on the handler to pay attention and manage their hike and their pup. It’s not about squelching their enthusiasm. Trust me: no dog I’ve hiked with has been shy about expressing (in their own way) how happy they are to be on trail! It’s just about giving them context.
I was really happy to see Titus’s joy on display during the Greenleaf hike, as pictured above: he loved the trail, loved being with me, loved seeing his girlfriend Ty, among other things! I was equally happy that when I decided we should turn around and stopped for a few minutes to check my phone and organize myself for the descent, he stepped quietly off trail, made himself a nest, and laid down for a break. He wasn’t fried; he had just figured out that there was more to this game than running madly up the trail and he was starting to make good decisions about taking care of himself.
This rule also covers comfort zone-stretching of all kinds. Remember how we mentioned different hikes having features and novel elements? Once you’ve established a baseline of confidence, fitness, and training/relationship/communication on the trail, it’s time to offer your dog some new things to learn.
My last post cautioned handlers against asking for too much, too soon. But some of us (this is me!) tend to err in the other direction where our animals are concerned, protecting and managing the hell out of them. Whether that’s a problem or not is up for debate; I personally think It Really Depends (on so many things!). But a hiking dog is going to be out in the world and that usually involves some surprises. Just as I think it’s important to build their confidence and enjoyment so they’ll want to play the game, I also think it’s important to develop a little tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort so they won’t be crushed if and when it gets hard.
Offering support and safe playgrounds for this kind of experience-gaining is important! The two pictures above were taken on Boulder Loop, the same trail as the sequence of Lilo from last week, but in a different spot. I don’t have any pictures of Titus in that spot because he needed some help with the question; I was too busy showing him how to work through it to juggle my phone. He’s getting good at scrambling up to a single flat surface, though, so I stood back and documented here. See also why I have relatively few pictures of Lilo crossing water.
And it can be, depending on the dog and the challenge you’re tackling, a delicate tap dance of asking them to try a little harder or to work a problem for a little longer while still making sure that they win out in the end. Titus is cheerful and enthusiastic, but not at baseline super brave; it would not have been hard to overwhelm him during those first hikes when he encountered a scrambly bit and had no idea what to do with his feet.
But if they never have the chance to learn, they never have the chance to learn.
This is especially important for shy, worried, and/or reactive dogs, I think, which is to say: exactly those dogs we’re most tempted to protect. I knew that Lilo was going to be able to hike for real when she stopped seeing small scrambles as reasons for concern and started seeing them as opportunities to earn cheese. I knew that Titus had figured out that he could figure it out when I watched him bounce up to jump onto a massive boulder, realize mid-air that it was too high, and land himself tidily right back where he’d started already looking for another option. Hiking is going to challenge your pup in every possible way. Part of building a happy trail dog, just like building a happy hiker, is making that part of the fun.
Tip: Think now about what you’d like your hikes to look like in a year or two or ten. Think about ways to gesture towards those end goals with your novice dog and about how to thin-slice those ways to challenge without overwhelming him. If you don’t have pipedream hikes in mind and you’re just enjoying the process, that’s just as good! Try a little bit of everything and see what sticks.
Part three, about what to do when things go a little sideways, will be up next week. In the meantime, go hike!