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How My Dog Mastered Off-Leash Hiking

I know there are tons of tips for teaching your dog off-leash hiking, but I only followed one. It may surprise you.

Wendy Newell  |  May 12th 2016


Riggins, my 10-year-old German Shorthair Pointer mix, is a master off-leash hiker. So much so that people often ask me how I trained him. The answer is never as satisfying as they want. He just did it one day.

It turns out that I have a short memory for anything related to Riggins and training. I’m sure new pet parents have asked you, “How did you house train?” Do you have an answer for them? Anyone I ask seems to be in the same boat I am with the answer, “He just learned.”

Riggins' signature hiking pose. I have dozens of pictures with his feat up on a rock or tree trunk. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Riggins’ signature hiking pose. I have dozens of pictures with his feet up on a rock or tree trunk. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Of course, I remember some details of the potty training time, like holding a little baby Riggins while running down three flights of stairs (we lived on the third story of an apartment at the time) because if he walked down the stairs when he had to go, he would piddle all the way down. And then plopping him in the ivy of the Buddhist temple next door so he could do his business.

I remember Riggins learning to go on a potty-grass patch on the patio, and if he was successful, the two of us would march around the dining room table, clapping, knees high, me leading and chanting, “Treats for the good boy. Treats for the good boy! Treat! Treat! Treat!” After a couple of loops, Riggins would indeed get his treat and bask in the glory of a job well done.

That’s about all I remember. Other than that, Riggins just figured it out. You pee outside. Done deal.

Running free is best done in the rain! (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Running free is best done in the rain! (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Off-leash training was similar. You get your leash taken off, you follow the trail, and that’s that. In Los Angeles, we are lucky enough to have an off-leash dog park that is also a 3-or-so-mile hiking loop called Runyon Canyon. At first, I was crazy nervous to let Riggins run free. “What if he runs away?” I kept thinking.

Then one day I just took him off, and he was fine. He did then what he does today off leash: Walk the trail, go up to humans and force them to pet him, and try to catch small woodland creatures.

We don't know that person. Riggins doesn't care. She should pet him anyway. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

We don’t know that person. Riggins doesn’t care. She should pet him anyway. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been more adventurous than I would like. I remember one time when he took off and I thought I had lost him. We were on a top trail, and he saw something down on the bottom trail that he HAD to see. He took off straight down through the bushes. Normally, he would come back up when called or after he ate whatever tasty treat he had discovered, but this time he didn’t. I lost my mind and forgot all the rules for following for a lost dog. I ran all the way down to the lower trail, and he wasn’t there, so I ran all the way back up, and he wasn’t there either!

I found him just a few minutes later. Like a good lost boy, he had stopped some humans to help him and they had called me on my cell, letting me know he was farther up the trail. Had I not panicked, he would have come right back to me. That’s what he did — came back — and he couldn’t find me so he continued up the trail we were hiking on.

Looking over Hollywood (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Looking over Hollywood. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Riggins also gets very unhappy when a fellow hiker goes off-trail and will often run over and bark aggressively at the person. He got really nervous once when he spotted a mylar balloon stuck in the bushes across the canyon and he couldn’t identify what it was. Then there are people who walk the trails who are just plain crazy (the hike is in Hollywood, after all, so there is a lot of crazy around). Riggins doesn’t trust those people and will circle and bark warnings at them. I keep his harness on, which has a handle at the top. If he misbehaves, I grab him and walk, holding him next to me, until we are away from whatever or whoever has caused him stress.

Now when people ask how to train their dog to hike off-leash, I suggest a long recall lead or carrying treats to reward when the dog responds to being called. I tell them to head out with a pack that includes a dog or two who know the ropes. I didn’t do those things, of course. I didn’t even think of using a long lead, and the off-leash hike we go on has so many happy dogs around I’d be the pied piper of Runyon Canyon if I brought treats. (Those dogs can smell treats from a mile away.) Although I’m sure being on a trail where there were other dogs “doing it right” helped Riggins learn.

Riggins turns to make sure his doggie friends Shadow and Sadie along with Sadie's human aunt are getting down the hill ok. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Riggins turns to make sure his doggie friends Shadow and Sadie, along with Sadie’s human aunt, are getting down the hill OK. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Happy hikers! Beaux, Huxley, Shadow, Asscher, and Riggins (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Happy hikers! Beaux, Huxley, Shadow, Asscher, and Riggins. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

During my three years of dog sitting, I took dozens of dogs on our hike. Many of them went off-leash for the first time in their lives. They were all so happy, and Riggins was thrilled to show his friends how fun it can be when you behave and follow the trails! I highly suggest trying an off-leash adventure with your pup if you can do so legally and safely.

Do you let your dog off-leash when hiking? Let us know in the comments!