Are you wanting to take your dog camping, but worry about reactive behavior like barking? Or maybe you are concerned that your dog may be fearful of new situations, unable to settle, or even becoming a flight risk?
While not every dog enjoys camping, there are many ways to make camping with your reactive or anxious dog a good experience for both you and your dog. The following are tips that I use with my reactive dog to set us up for success at a campground.
1. Choose a low-traffic campsite
Choosing a low-traffic site can be a little tricky if you are not familiar with a campground, but a quiet campsite can really help an anxious or reactive dog have a better camping experience.
When choosing a campsite, try to find a campsite with good spacing from the other sites. Avoid choosing a campsite near high traffic areas like the bathrooms, garbage collection areas, or near the entrance of a hiking trail.
2. Consider Camping in an RV instead of a Tent
Depending on how reactive your dog is, you may both rest easier sleeping inside of a camper with hard sides and more noise-blocking compared to a standard tent.
Now, this doesn’t mean that reactive dogs can’t go tent camping successfully. My dog tent camps and even backpacks with me, but when we are in high traffic, crowded campgrounds, I prefer sleeping with her inside of a car or an RV.
If you don’t have an RV, consider renting one for your dog’s first camping trip. But if you really prefer tent camping, follow the tips listed in our “11 Tips for Successfully Tent Camping with Your Dog” post to help make your dog’s experience as positive as possible.
3. Exercise your dog before arriving at the campground (and each morning)
Exercise is a great way to relieve anxiety in people and dogs. Add to this the fact that taking your dog for a walk gives you some dedicated time for one on one training, and you can easily see the benefits of taking your anxious or reactive dog for a walk every day.
There are a couple of caveats to this, however. You may need to walk your dog early or late to avoid other campground walkers. Or you may need to drive your dog to a more isolated area for their walk.
If you have followed along with other blog posts in our series on living an active life with a dog struggling with reactivity, then you already know about trigger stacking. If you aren’t familiar, click that link and find out more. But the simple consideration is that if your dog is already stressed by triggers they are exposed to at the campsite, they may be more reactive on a walk. As a result, it is important to make sure they are set up for success by limiting triggers on their walks.
If you can’t avoid a lot of triggers on a walk, then you may be better served by exercising right at your campsite with a fun morning training session or a game of fetch.
4. Bring Plenty of Positive Reinforcement (aka treats!)
If you are actively working on behavior modification with your reactive dog, then you already know that every new experience is a learning opportunity. And the goal is to make new experiences positive. So don’t forget to bring positive reinforcers along on your camping trip.
I typically wear a treat pouch while camping so that I always have treats at the ready (both of my dogs are very treat motivated). This way, when the dogs are aroused by a new noise or if a strange dog walks past our campsite, I can promptly reward the dogs for calm behavior.
Calm behaviors that I reinforce are paying attention to me, returning to me when a strange dog or person approaches along the road, listening promptly to verbal commands, and laying quietly on their camping mats.
Depending on the stage of your dog’s training/behavior modification, you may have to give your dog more or less guidance to get these behaviors. For example, in the early stages, you may need to be watching for approaching dogs and get your dog’s attention before the strange dog approaches in order to successfully keep your dog below threshold. Later on, your dog may be able to see an approaching dog and come to you for praise and a treat without a specific cue. But always reward the behaviors you want to see more of!
If you haven’t already read posts about positive reinforcement training styles for reactive dogs, check out our blog post on Using CARE to Help Your Dog Live a Less Reactive Life.
5. Bring a Secure Tie Out
If your dog is anxious or reactive, you will probably want your dog to be on a leash during their time at the campground. And you likely won’t want to be holding a leash during your entire time at the campground. As a result, you will want to pack a secure tie-out for your dog.
There are a lot of tie-out systems for dogs, but personally, I like to use a shorter line so my dogs stay close and can’t get up too much speed if they decide to run towards something. So I like to use a long hands-free leash and clip it around something secure (like a tree or picnic bench or car hitch).
Lately, I have been really liking my Zouga leash, as I know it has been tested to withstand 500lbs of force. I attach the leash to a full-body harness that the dogs can’t slip out of (like the Ruffwear WebMaster or Flagline).
Make sure the harness has your dog’s ID information or that they are also wearing a collar with ID (and your phone number). Even though the goal is to make sure your dog is safe and secure, occasionally accidents happen. Bonus points if you add a tag with your campsite number.
6. Bring Puzzle Toys or Chews to Help Your Dog Settle
Earlier in this post, we talked about how exercise can help reduce your dog’s stress and make it easier for them to settle at the campsite. In addition to working on relaxation training with the dogs, the other technique I use is some good old-fashioned distraction.
7. Plan to Stay with Your Dog (don’t leave them unattended)
And the final tip for camping with an anxious or reactive dog is to plan to spend the camping trip with your dog. Don’t leave your dog unattended until they have the skills to relax calmly while camping. There are several reasons for this, and often it is even part of the campground regulations that dogs should not be left unattended.
But for an anxious dog, being left alone can increase anxiety and make it more likely for the dog to practice reactive behaviors, like barking at strange noises or people passing by.
The key to preventing barking and nuisance behaviors is to work on reducing anxiety and reducing negative responses to triggers. And in order to reduce responses you don’t want (like barking), you need to be present to reinforce positive behaviors and responses to triggers.
If you leave your dog alone, they can bark at people passing by and be reinforced for barking as those people walk away. If you are present you can pair rewards with the approach of strangers instead, especially if your dog is quiet and calm, and work towards eliminating barking at strangers altogether.
It’s Time to Camp!
Okay, with these skills you should be ready for your first camping trip with your dog. So pick a good campground and get started.
And if you are interested in backpacking, check out my post about “Backpacking with a Reactive Dog: What It’s Really Like” and consider signing up for our email list all about adventuring with a dog with reactivity.