Hiking with a Reactive Dog

Written by Kate Lowrey

The term “reactive dog” has become somewhat of an umbrella term to describe behaviors where a dog overreacts to its triggers. This can look like barking, jumping, lunging, growling, intense staring, yawning, urinating and others. This term does not address the underlying emotions that may drive this reaction: frustration, excitement, fear… and a laundry list of others. I start with this because you know your dog best and should decipher what this term means for you and your dog so that you can best set them up for success. I am not a trainer, just a committed dog owner to a pup whose reactivity stems from fear. Keep reading for some of our hiking tips!

Planning a Hike

For picking a trail, I like to think about where Bear is at with his training and what I’m looking to get out of the adventure. Can Bear handle a busy trail? Do I want a training outing or to just to relax in the mountains? Are we going alone or in a group with other people/ dogs?

I use these questions as mental filters for what trails I’m going to consider. Being honest about where you are as a team and your objective for the day is really important for having a successful hike that is enjoyable for both of you. Pick a trail that will help make you successful.

While Bear and I have made a lot of progress in his reactivity and he can handle busier, and more crowded hikes- sometimes I would just rather have a relaxing day in the mountains where I don’t see a lot of other people. If it’s one of those days or even an off week for bear (we all have them) this is what I look for:

  • Wide trails (Jeep trails are a great option in the winter): This is helpful for space even if we have to pass someone there is plenty of room to move away from other groups

  • Lightly trafficked: Steer clear of AllTrails reviews of heavily trafficked trails and popular/ iconic names

  • Leash Laws: If it is not a trail that I know, I will usually pick something that has a leash law requiring dogs to be on leash. Unruly off-leash dogs are an annoyance to all dog owners but for us it’s a big deal. Leash laws can put you at ease knowing that *most* people will abide or at least leash up when you approach.

Hitting the Trails

During the hike how I approach each encounter is very situational. I will do my best to summarize but please feel free to email or DM with questions! On every hike- no matter the leash laws Bear starts out on leash and we do some obedience. This helps us ensure his listening ears are on and helps get him into a calm mindset since he is always very excited for the next adventure.

The muzzle. If there is any question about whether or not Bear should be muzzled for a particular trail- muzzle up. Bear has been conditioned so he doesn’t mind wearing it at all! This simple measure keeps everyone safe, sends a clear signal that you would like more space, and gives some peace of mind (at least for me it does). You can always take it off if it is not needed!

Passing Other Groups

This one is incredibly situational- just people? People and dogs? Dogs on leash or off? So many different combinations!

At this point in our journey if there is an off-leash dog I will ask the owner to leash up, Bear is leashed too if not already. Most people are incredibly kind about this request and we are able to pass each other with no issue. When you come across someone that is a little more inquisitive, you can share as much or as little information as you like. Some phrases I like to use are:

  • We’re in training please do not let your dog approach.

  • I don’t allow on-leash greetings.

  • He is not friendly.

This is the one I use for people who just aren’t getting the point and it is quite effective

You will inevitably encounter THAT person who decides to be rude about leashing their dog- my best advice? Say what needs to be said and continue on with the hike. You will never see that person again, but your dog will remember that you advocated for them every single time so don’t back down.