For more than ten thousand years, men and dogs have ventured into the wild to hunt and to explore. Our working bond has included herding, tracking, retrieving, and protection, with innumerable breeds filling in each niche. Yet, over the last 200 years, the relationship between people and dogs has changed considerably. Gone are the days of the outdoorsy dog. Dogs now sleep at the foot of our soft beds after a long day of crating, a nap on a soft couch, and a 30-minute walk on the pavement. If a dog were your fat ex-girlfriend, you could throw in a Netflix subscription and she’d be set for life. Luckily, dogs are so much more dynamic and ready and willing for a life of adventure.
When I got my chocolate Lab, Huxley, in 2010, I was a fat piece of shit. I was 275 pounds from a ten-year stint as a junk food-horking, soda-swilling, TV-absorbing pothead. Since then, I’ve lost over 100 pounds and taken up climbing, camping, hiking, running, and weightlifting as hobbies. Huxley spent his puppy years with a doughy bastard who couldn’t walk around the block without soaking himself in sweat. My bad habits became his bad habits. As I improved my life and lifestyle, I worked hard to improve his as well.
Here’s my top tips for transitioning your dog into the adventure dog he/she wants to be:
The first thing to IGNORE COMPLETELY is your dog’s breed.
That’s probably an overstatement. The first thing to remember about your dog’s breed is that it doesn’t matter too much. Your dog is capable, but remember that they have physical limits that may be exacerbated by their breed/type. Common sense prevails here – a St. Bernard isn’t built for running long distances or desert heat and a Greyhound wasn’t designed for swimming in a 30 degree lake.
On the trail, I’ve seen tiny Chihuahuas and Pomeranians sharing the same space as German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. In fact, there’s good arguments to be made for having a smaller dog out there with you. I worry sometimes about 95-pound Huxley hurting himself 2-, 5-, or 10-miles from the trailhead and wondering how I’d get him to help. Bigger dogs mean bigger logistics for food, water, and shelter. A 25-pound ball of energy is much more manageable on a boat than an excitable 110.
More important than a dog’s breed, or combination of breeds, is your dog’s temperament. When selecting a puppy or picking a companion from the pound, you want a dog that has the ability to be calm. The best way to identify this trait is to look for a dog that is aloof – and you will have to look. A calm dog won’t come bounding your way to greet you, won’t be jumping onto your chest the first time you meet. Instead, a calm dog gives you his/her full attention when engaged and is happy to relax while you’re doing something else.
Here’s where we get down to business. Training is incredibly important for your safety and the safety of your dog. Moreover, it’s a mutually satisfying exercise that builds a stronger bond between you two. While I’ll always advocate for puppy training or basic command courses, dog training goes beyond the “sit/stay/lay down” you’ll learn in three afternoons at your local PetsMart. Whether you’re in the wilderness or at a developed campsite, these commands provide very little in the way of structure. In addition to your basic commands, focus on your dog’s understanding of these three concepts:
Recall is an obvious skill, but difficult to train. The typical rule is to “never let your dog off-leash until recall is 100%” and this applies doubly in a crowded campsite, a densely forested area, or any new situation. But if you can’t let your dog off-leash anywhere more significant than your backyard, how can you know whether it’s safe to test him/her in a busier, less familiar environment. I’ve found that the best way to train recall is at the dog park. Armed with a handful of training treats, let your dog loose and call him/her over at irregular intervals and reward each success with a treat. Eventually, your dog will learn to keep one ear and one eye on your voice and movement, in spite of the relative chaos of the dog park. I took it one step further and used the chain on his slip collar as a secondary cue for recall. After a few weeks of this training with Huxley, I could stand up from the bench, collar and leash in hand, and he would follow me to the exit of the park without even a single word.
Possession is an important concept as well, and very straightforward. Everything is mine, until I’ve shared it with you. Again, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but training a dog’s sense of possession results in reduced aggression, heightens impulse control, and reduces bad habits like chewing shoes and chasing animals. With any retrieving breed, this is easily trained a minimum of twice a day. Before your dog feeds, make him/her wait a moment before eating and give a release command (“Get it!”) when you’re ready. This training can be modified for dogs with less healthy appetites using a favorite toy, but make sure it doesn’t become a game – play and work must be kept separate for effective training. A dog that understands the concept of possession well will stop sniffing that pile of deer shit when you tell it to and won’t go chasing after that squirrel (or will wait until you start chasing after it).
Once you’ve mastered these two, you can move on to positioning. I’ll readily admit that I’m no expert in this area, but you want to be able to point to or tap the place where you want your dog to go. This skill will help you help your dog navigate lesser maintained trails, maintain balance on a stand-up paddleboard, and ultimately work to keep the both of you safe, on- or off- leash
As far as the necessities go, you won’t need much. Have your dog sized for a backpack and add weight slowly so he/she can get used to the load. I promise you that a dog that packs in its food and water looks proud of the accomplishment come dinnertime. Look for packs that include an integrated handle as this could come in handy on a difficult section of trail or water crossing. I recommend the Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack because of the full harness and saddle, as well as the reflective surfaces that make your dog more visible. You might also consider a collapsible dog bowl or two, such as this waxed canvas offering from Frost River.
Another solid, all-around piece of adventure gear is a lighted collar, for early mornings, late nights, or overnight trips. The GoDoggie-GLOW is an excellent LED option with an integrated battery that can be recharged via USB.
For Hux and me, it’s been an awesome journey making the transition from sedentary to outdoor enthusiasts but we’ve adapted and grown through our experiences together. Whether you’re going on your first trip, making the move to weekend warrior, or heading out for a life of full-time adventure, your dog will want to be right there with you. Bring ‘em along- they’ll love you for it!