An Unlikely Hikers Guide to Hiking with a Reactive Dog

Travelling with a dog means you always put them first. Museums, art galleries and cities are rarely dog-friendly and for a reactive pup like mine, they are a massive sensory overload. I knew before I started my journey that Dougie and I would be spending most of our time exploring the outdoors and I purposely chose destinations that would allow us to both relax and enjoy ourselves. 

Before our travels Dougie and I were very much settled into our routine of morning and evening walks dictated by work. Occasionally, we would take a longer hike at weekends but there were few and far between.

Almost a month into our trip we have hiked somewhere incredible nearly every day. We have seen seals happily swimming, eagles soaring, a peek of a sea otter and sheep, lots of sheep. But nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for just how connected I feel to my body, to the land and to Dougie when hiking. The little voice saying, “you can’t do this,” or “you’re not going to make it,” is quietly swept away when I feel the power pumping into my thighs pushing me up, pushing me forward. My body taking complete ownership of my mind is something new to me. It makes me feel fierce, unstoppable, and utterly content with myself and the world around me.

My body taking complete ownership of my mind is something new to me. It makes me feel fierce, unstoppable, and utterly content with myself and the world around me.

Dougie and I have also found a new harmony where we instinctively know what each other needs. With a look I can change Dougie’s direction and in turn, Dougie with a look can tell when I need a rest.

This wasn’t always the case. Before leaving I was incredibly anxious about how we would both cope. All the blogs, articles and insta posts show impeccably behaved dogs and athletic women. We are none of those things. Dougie is reactive, excitable and fearless with little street sense. I’m not a size zero, I’m not athletic, I can’t read a map. On paper there isn’t a lot going for us in the outdoor world.

All the blogs, articles and insta posts show impeccably behaved dogs and athletic women. We are none of those things.

So we have had to learn as we go along, but often this is the best way to learn something new. We’ve made mistakes of course. He’s knocked me off balance more than once and I’ve taken him down paths his little paws shouldn’t go on, but these are our top tips that work for us and may (or may not) work for you too. 

I also hope they serve as a reminder to anyone who is feeling less than, that you don’t have to be “perfect” to get out there with your equally gloriously imperfect furry pal, and begin an adventure.

  1. Know Your Dog

Don’t go into any hike with disillusions about who your dog is. If they have a high prey drive, don’t always come back when called, don’t always walk to heel, hates greeting other dogs when on the lead, or just overly excitable some times - whatever their little character quirks are, know it and accept it. Denying it is the worst thing you can do. 

Dougie is small dog with a big heart. He loves snuggles under the duvet, neck massages, tummy rubs and licking salty feet but he is also easily excitable (and very vocal with it), nervous of other dogs (big dogs are the worst), fearlessly disappears into rabbit holes (he is a Jack Russell after all) and has little road sense. I worked hard when he was younger with additional training and socialisation, but eventually knowing and accepting these traits meant I could work with them rather than against them. 

So how did I do this?

A) Identify their triggers

Dougie has three major triggers - food, territory and big bouncy dogs. I learnt this over the years through trial and error, but it always boils down to these three areas. It’s nothing big, I’ve just adapted. 

For example, I wouldn’t offer a treat to Dougie with another dog nearby who is off-lead, nor would I let another owner offer him a treat. The campervan (and me) is Dougie’s territory so I don’t have him on the tether when there are other dogs roaming around. I can’t do much about other dogs all the time as It depends on the circumstance and the other owners control and understanding of their own dog, but usually off the lead, Dougie is fine. It is when he is on the lead I watch him for any signs of stress, fear or aggression. If I do, I simply move him out of the situation because that is what a pack leader does. 

B) Identify their motivators 

Dougie is driven by two things; food and a ball. I always take a mixture of treats with me on a hike. I have a mix of biscuit treats for the little rewards, but when I need the big guns I have a meaty treat up my sleeve. 

In my back pack I carry a small ball so we are forever ready to play fetch on a big empty beach. But it is also incredibly handy to grab Dougie’s attention quickly when he is off-lead. 

2. Invest in a good harness 

Dougie is a small dog but has a lot of might, so when he pulls on the lead in excitement there is a lot of stress placed on his neck and my arm. A harness minimises his ability to pull, causes less stress on his little neck and has the added bonus of making him look funky too. 

Hiking harnesses usually are breathable, quick drying and comes with a handy handle to help lift a dog while hiking if you have to. I certainly did climbing over the boulder fields on the Isle of Arran and I was grateful I could carry him through the tricky parts safely. 

TOP TOP TIP: I would recommend having 2 harnesses so when the other is drying or being cleaned you have a spare. Next pet shop I see I’m getting Dougie another harness as I only have one and it is filthy! 

3. Use a bungee lead

As Dougie is Dougie I rarely let him off lead when hiking. There are too many sheep, cliff edges, and holes he can disappear into. A bungee lead, as opposed to an extendable lead, gives you both a little more freedom without getting in a tangle. The bungee lead reduces impact of any sudden movements by your dog or by you.

This may sound restrictive but it helps we are both in sync with each other and above all, we are both relaxed so the hike is always enjoyable whether he is on the lead or not. When I feel it is safe to do so, which is usually when I feel I have full control of the surroundings. For example, I can see what is coming in either direction, then I let him off the lead for a run. 

TOP TOP TIP: As a plus size girl I didn’t find the hands free running leads that tie around your waist or chest comfortable. Instead I have lots of carabiner clips. They are incredibly handy to have anyway, but I use one to clip Dougie’s lead to my bag so I can have my hands free for scrabbling, balance and capturing the moment with my camera.

4. Have a set of solid commands. 

Dougie may not be the best trained dog in the world, but I have a few solid commands that are set in stone. Apart from the usual ‘sit’ we have; 

This way: to change direction or to follow me

Stay: when I want him to stay in the car/van. 

Wait: When I need him to pause when navigating a tricky descent

Ready: When I want him to jump up

“Ready” with my hand held high above my head means I have a ball (sometimes a rock) and I’m about to throw it so you better come back to me NOW. This one has never failed me yet. 

5. Don’t be an arsehole. 

I often say, the worst thing about other dogs is their owners.

Don’t be an arsehole.

If you see signs saying dogs should be on the lead. Put them on the lead, no matter how well behaved you believe your dog is. A dog is a dog. If you see another dog ahead of you on the lead, it’s for a reason. Put yours on a lead too or give the other dog plenty of space. Not every dog likes another dog leaping all over them. If you see another dog not enjoying your dogs attention, call them back. Put down the phone and take the time to notice what your dog is up to. It really is that simple. Clean up your dogs mess and take the bag with you.

Don’t be that person.

Don’t be an arsehole. 

Do you have any tips for hiking with your pup?