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Backpacking with a Reactive Dog: What It’s Really Like

Hi! My name is Kate and I have a reactive dog. Her name is Glia and I adopted her from a local humane society in 2010. Like many dogs who develop reactive behaviors, Glia developed reactivity towards unfamiliar dogs when she reached social maturity (at about a year and a half old and despite lots of positive puppy socialization). Living with a reactive dog can be tough sometimes, but I didn’t want to leave her behind on my outdoor adventures. So the questions was….

Can you backpack with a reactive dog? Yes! It does take a little more planning, attention to detail, good dog handling skills, and the willingness to skip some activities. But with the right combination of behavior modification and management protocols, reactive dogs can live an active life at your side.

If you are interested in what a typical backpacking experience looks like for me and Glia, keep reading. Below I share my tips and tricks for a successful night on the trail with my dog-reactive dog. Follow along with me on our recent one-night backpacking trip on Minnesota’s North Shore.

Preparation

Before you hit the trail with your reactive dog, you should have a few basic skills achieved and gear items figured out.

Whether your dog is dog or people reactive, make sure you can successfully pass your dog’s triggers on a sidewalk or street before bringing your dog on to narrow hiking trails.

Your dog may benefit from working on relaxation and deference skills (links to our posts on those topics). You can also work on counter conditioning and desensitizing your dog from triggers. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website is a great resource for counter conditioning reactive dogs.

For Glia, I always walk and hike with high-value treats that can be used to distract Glia while passing another dog and/or to reward her for calm behavior while we pass. I also have Glia trained to allow me to pick her up to create distance from another dog when we don’t have enough room to step off of the trail away from an approaching dog.

Your dog may also benefit from hiking in a basket muzzle, especially if you have any doubts about your dog being a bite risk. But make sure your dog can happily wear a muzzle at home before you bring a muzzle along on a backpacking adventure.

Gear for Reactive Dogs

We have a whole article dedicated to our favorite safe and secure harnesses, collars, and leashes for reactive dogs, but I will summarize them here:

Glia wears a combination of a full-body harness, martingale collar, and sturdy leash when out on the trail.

A full-body harness is much harder for her to back out of than a traditional harness. Additionally, both the Ruffwear Flagline and Groundbird Gear harnesses have handles on the top of the harness to make it easier for me to lift Glia if I need to create space from an approaching dog.

The Ruffwear harness handle is easier to grab, but Glia’s Groundbird Gear harness comes with the additional perk of having removable trekking packs so Glia can carry some of her own gear while on trail. In the images below, you will see Glia in both harnesses.

Glia wears a martingale collar, rather than a traditional buckle collar, as the martingale collar is more difficult to back out off. Martingale collars are designed to tighten up (to a certain point) when tension is applied to the leash. Additionally, when we have had collars fail, it is most often at the buckle, so removing this part of the collar reduces the chance of a collar breaking.

And finally, we use a waist-worn leash to reduce the risk of me dropping the leash if Glia darts after something on the trail.

The Drive to the Trail

Our trip starts out peacefully, as luckily, Glia travels well and our drives are typically uneventful. This Saturday, we leave around 8am. Glia hops in the car, watches out the window until we get to the highway, then curls up and relaxes until the car stops.

When we stop for gas, us humans head into the gas station one at a time to use the restroom. If I travel alone, I try to park a little further away from the main door to reduce the traffic walking by outside our car. If I see another car with dogs, I try to park on the opposite side of the parking lot so Glia doesn’t try to bark at them.

After our bathroom break, we get back in the car and keep driving. When it is time to stop for lunch, we find a picnic area at Temperance River State Park along the shoreline of Lake Superior. I bring my waist-worn leash to clip around a leg of the picnic table and am pleasantly surprised to not see any other dogs in the picnic area. This means I can more fully relax as we eat lunch in this scenic location.

I watch the road for passing dogs, but all of the dogs that walk by are far enough away that Glia is more interested in what I am eating than in any of the dogs in the distance.

Begging for food at the picnic table along the shore of Lake Superior.

With full stomachs, we finish our drive to our first stop of the day: the hiking trail to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall at Judge C.R. Magney State Park.

Hiking a Busy Trail at Judge C.R. Magney State Park

The trail to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall is a popular one and the parking lot is busy. There is even a state park staff member directing us to park along the entrance road.

After we park, the humans again take turns using the out-house and then we are off on the trail. Although the trail is busy, we are lucky to find nice places to pull off to the side as other dogs pass. Glia calmly takes treats until the dogs are past and then we continue our hike.

A nice perk to busy state parks is that we rarely encounter off-leash dogs. Minnesota State Parks state that dogs need to be on six-foot or shorter leashes inside the park boundaries. And when the parks are busy, visitors adhere to this rule well. On this visit, we are extra lucky that every dog we pass is well behaved and walks past Glia on a short leash without trying to run up to her. This makes it much easier for Glia to calmly ignore the other dogs.

We make it up to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall and back down without any issues.

Glia standing at the top of the Devil’s Kettle falls.

Hiking and Camping on the Superior Hiking Trail

After leaving the state park, we head to the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) to camp at one of the free all-come, all-served backcountry campsites. We leave our car at a trailhead and begin a beautiful hike above the Devil Track River.

The trail is relatively quiet and we don’t pass any other dogs on our way out to the campsite. When we reach the first campsite on our route (East Devil Track campsite), we find that it is already pretty full and head over to the West Devil Track campsite.

This part of backpacking with Glia is often the most anxiety-producing for me, as if we arrive too late we don’t have much choice in our camping location. And last time we spent a night on the SHT, even though we set our tent up early, the group that set up next to us had a young German Shepherd dog with them.

Luckily, Glia did fantastic with that dog just several feet away all evening. She only barked at it when it started playing with a rock on the ground. And the owners of that dog were great and kept the dog leashed the entire time. (Dogs are required to be leashed on the SHT, but this rule isn’t always followed.) However, I still end up needing to pay more attention to Glia all evening than if we are only sharing our campsite with other humans.

Happily, on this trip, we get a nice secluded campsite where I can tie Glia out without worrying about another dog nearby.

Glia poses in front of the river at the West Devil Track campground.

Encountering Wildlife

We set up camp and eat dinner before taking an evening walk to a nearby overlook (Pincushion Mountain). Halfway out to the overlook, we pause on a bench to and enjoy the evening views out towards Lake Superior. While we sit, I look to our right and see a fox coming down the trail.

Glia doesn’t notice the fox right away, so I have time to snap a quick picture. However, once Glia notices the fox, she immediately begins whining at it. We toss a branch in the fox’s direction to attempt to scare the fox off. But the fox has clearly been fed by hikers in the past and merely picks up everything we throw at it in order to see if anything we tossed is edible.

I pull Glia back down the trail out of sight of the fox to try and help her calm down and refocus. But she is too worried about my roommate who starts walking towards the fox to try and flush it off of the trail.

Unfortunately, I am distracted talking to my friend as she walks towards the fox. And Glia is even more anxious as we lose sight of our hiking companion around the corner. I am unsuccessful in helping Glia relax until the fox leaves the path and we rejoin our friend.

We make it to the overlook without any further incidents, but on our way back it turns out that the fox has followed us to the overlook and is loitering around hoping for a bite of another hiker’s Subway sandwich. These hikers warn us that the fox is there ahead of time, so I simply pick Glia up and walk with her past the area the fox was at. Glia is used to this maneuver and we pass calmly and peacefully.

Glia at the overlook at Pincushion Mountain.

As we head back to our tent, I think about previous wildlife encounters with my high prey drive dog. The worst encounter was during a night I backpacked solo with Glia in Michigan’s Sylvania Wilderness. It was the middle of the night when something rustled outside our tent prompting Glia to bolt upright and then launch herself through the side of the tent. I was left sitting alone staring at the hole my dog had left behind.

Luckily, we were very isolated and Glia came slinking back within 10 minutes. However, she was sporting a muzzle full of porcupine quills. While it isn’t recommended to remove porcupine quills yourself, I was miles away from my car and a veterinary clinic. So I ended up pulling most of the quills out myself. Only two broke off and were not fully removed.

Now I am extra cautious about making sure Glia is secure at night, even when she is in a tent. And on this trip, our night passed without incident.

Hiking Back to Our Car

In the morning we make breakfast, enjoy a lazy morning sipping coffee by the river, and then pack up camp.

As we hike back towards our car, we encounter our first off-leash dog of the trip. The dog comes around a corner in front of its people as we hike a relatively narrow area of the trail. The owners make no effort to leash up when they see us, so I ask the owner to please get her dog as my dog is a little dog-reactive. The owner does slowly reach for her dog while saying “she won’t bother you, she is wearing her pack and knows she is working.”

For me personally, this is one of the hardest parts of having a reactive dog. So many other dog owners just don’t understand. It’s not that I am afraid of your dog, but after years of working with Glia, I am anxious about the unknown of unleashed dogs on the trail. I never now which unleashed dogs while walk calmly past, which will bound up to happily greet us, and which will react if Glia reacts first.

So many dogs have poor greeting skills and their owners aren’t aware of how rude their dogs are being. I have had numerous dogs jump on me to reach Glia when I have to pick her up to create space for “friendly” charging dogs. I can’t always trust what another hiker says their dog will or won’t do. I am much more comfortable walking past a dog who is leashed. And dogs are required to be leashed on the Superior Hiking Trail.

I don’t really mind an off-leash dog who is promptly recalled and leashed or placed in a heel position when another group of hikers approaches. But personally, I consider it poor form to let your unleashed dog walk ahead of you on a leash required trail as you pass another group of hikers.

In this instance, I just thank the other hiker, pick Glia up and walk past the other dog without incident.

About 15 minutes later, we have a second dog encounter. This time the encounter is my fault. I am standing off the side of the trail taking photos when a dog on a long leash approaches around a corner. The dog walks straight towards Glia before I have a chance to pull her back. Glia initially lets the other dog sniff her. But as I move her backward and let the other dog’s people know that she isn’t always dog friendly, Glia lets out a sharp bark/whine.

This group happily and politely recalls their dog away from Glia. I apologize but regret that I was distracted and not prepared to help Glia more successfully navigate that encounter. I wasn’t paying attention enough to have my treats ready to distract Glia/ positively associate the approach of the unfamiliar dog. But I appreciate the friendliness and understanding of the other hikers.

We make it back to the car without any more dog encounters.

A Hike around the Popular and Busy Oberg Mountain Loop

After getting to our car, we begin driving south back to the Twin Cities. But we have a couple of day hikes planned before we leave the North Shore. Our first stop is the highly trafficked Oberg Mountain Loop. Before we begin this loop, I make sure I have plenty of high value treats easily accessible in my cheap Walmart fanny-pack.

Overall, the hike is a great success. We pass multiple other dogs, and Glia walks by them all calmly as I dole out treats for positive association (counter-conditioning) and/or positive reinforcement depending on how difficult each dog is for her to pass.

As a reminder, positive association/counter-conditioning occurs when a trigger – which for Glia is another dog – appears and then good things – aka treats – also appear. So a trigger is associated with something good. Positive reinforcement rewards Glia for calm behaviors, like looking at me and not the approaching dog.

In the first scenario, the approaching dog is what results in a treat whether or not Glia is behaving well. In the second scenario, Glia must perform a behavior in order to get the reward – aka treat.

If the approaching dog is staring hard at Glia or really energetic, I feed her treats without asking her for any specific skills, as these dogs are the hardest for her to ignore. This stronger trigger makes Glia more anxious, decreasing the likelihood of her being able to perform a correct behavior. I am still working on counter conditioning her to these types of dogs.

If the approaching dog is calm and ignoring Glia (aka a low intensity trigger), I will ask Glia to heel and look at me as we walk by and then give her a treat after she successfully passes the other dog.

As for our hike at Oberg Mountain, we only get caught on one overlook, when another dog starts heading right out to where we are standing, blocking our ability to leave the overlook. I have to ask the approaching group to wait for a second. They comply and I pick Glia up and carry her past the dog that is right in our path. Glia is nice and calm in my arms as I step through the waiting group.

A Busy Afternoon at Palisade Head

We also choose to stop at the popular Palisade Head area at Tettegouche State Park. There are several other dogs here also, including a dog in a muzzle.

I just want to mention that I really admire dog owners who muzzle their reactive dogs. It is such a great way to keep everyone safe. These owners were conscious of us approaching and had their beautiful dog relaxed and under control. It was just a great reminder that a muzzle can be a great tool to help a reactive dog enjoy life safely.

We avoid a few overlooks or leave a few locations earlier to avoid close contact with other dogs, but we are still able to get some amazing photos and enjoy the stunning views.

The Drive Home

After visiting Palisade Head, we pack ourselves back into the car to begin the drive home. We stop at Betty’s Pies for lunch and find a great picnic table to eat at. Glia does great and once again we luck out by not having any other dogs settle in for lunch at the other picnic tables.

After lunch, we get back in the car and Glia sleeps for the whole ride home.

Summary Points

Overall, backpacking and hiking with a reactive dog takes more energy and attention than hiking with a non-reactive dog. I need to spend more time watching or listening up and down the trail when I might prefer to be absorbed by the fantastic overlook views in front of me. Seeing dogs ahead of time allows me to create the distance necessary to work on successful counter conditioning and allow Glia space to be calm enough for me to be able to positively reinforce calm behaviors.

I also need to make sure I am prepared with good high-value treats at the ready and that I am ready to use each approaching dog as a learning opportunity. Glia and I have made a lot of progress on this over the last several years.

In years past, we may have had to avoid some of the high traffic areas like Oberg Mountain Loop or Palisade Head. But time, repetition, and learning more about training reactive dogs have led to a reduction in Glia’s reactivity and my improvement as an advocate for my reactive dog.

Glia will never be a candidate for off-leash hiking. But that’s okay, as most of the trails on the North Shore require a leash.

And for those of you beigingin your journey with your own reactive dog, remember that neither you nor your dog is perfect. There will be set backs and failures. Remember that instance when I was taking pictures and not watching down the trail and Glia reacted to an approaching dog? That was a small mistake, but it could have been worse if the other dog had been off-leash or also reactive.

It is easier said than done, but don’t beat yourself up when mistakes like that happen. Just work to prevent those situations in the future. We all have good days and bad days. Just make sure everyone stays safe, take a deep breath, and make your dog’s next encounter with a trigger even better.

Do you have a reactive dog that you want to bring hiking with you? Start with the following articles that discuss basic foundational skills to work on with your dog before heading out to a busy trail.

And for those of you hiking with a friendly dog, please remember that the best way you can help a reactive dog and their human is to not allow your dog to approach a strange dog without asking permission first. There are many reasons that other people or dogs may not want to greet your dog. Default to giving everyone space.

Have any questions for me about hiking with a reactive dog? Ask me in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Kate, Glia & Sasha

8 replies on “Backpacking with a Reactive Dog: What It’s Really Like”

Love this post! I have 2 cattle dog mix dogs. One is very aggressive on leash. But does ok in doggie day care off leash. Love your harness post as well. I use the Gentle Lead and it is a life saver!

The Gentle Leader was a lifesaver for me too in the early stages of Glia’s training. I only use the Gentle Leader in high traffic areas now, but we still have it handy.

Thank you so much for this. I’m planning to follow along with any additional posts you may have. I adopted a dog from a local NH rescue last May. He is about 4 years old, I am not totally sure. He started showing reactive behaviors within a few weeks of me getting him. At first, and maybe even still, I questioned if it was something I did or an interaction we had, but I know it is due to many, many other possible factors. The first, I think stems from lack of socialization and his breed mix. I don’t know much of his history. I am an avid hiker in NH and had grand plans of hiking with my buddy, still do and try, but with many off leash dogs (nightmare for me) it is challenging as dogs are his only trigger. I appreciate your advice and sorry if your journey!! I love my dog so much. We will continue to hike together to the best of our ability and work on training regularly. I have seen progress with our work over the past year.

Congrats on adopting your pup! Reactive behavior can be a challenge, but with continued training, I am sure you will continue to see a lot of progress. Glia and I have been hiking together for over 8 years now and, while I still have to stay vigilant on the trail, she is so much less reactive now than before we started behavior modification/training. And I agree that off-leash dogs do make it so much more challenging. I wish there were more trails where people actually followed leash laws/regulations, but you’re right that it can be hard to find trails without any off-leash dogs. Hope you can find some nice quiet trails out in NH!

I am so happy I came across your website! Was planning to take my pups with us to Pinnacles National Park. First I learned that we wouldn’t be able to take them on all hiking trails, then I saw your post about Pinnacles NP being the least dog friendly NP. That’s a bummer.

We love to hike with our pups everywhere that we are allowed to. We moved from Michigan to California recently. we have been exploring around and take our pups with us.
My rescued great pyrenees can be reactive to dogs who are reactive. Sometimes it is challenging to hike with him but we fur sure not want to leave him behind. We have been training him every single walk/hike we go. Sometimes he does so well but of course sometimes he is unpredictable. Love to learn some more from your page! Thank you for sharing!!

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