Project Trail Dog: Training the Perfect Hiking Buddy

dogs meeting on trail

Dogs meeting on the trail

A good trail dog needs to be calm, confident, alert to danger but not easily threatened, and most of all…focused on his owner. This does not describe Mr. Moose, the German Shepherd (Greyhound?) mix that I am training to be my trail buddy. He does very well with people he knows, and he’s more plenty willing to take on a challenge outdoors – I took him to the river this weekend and he galloped headlong into a patch of quicksand. This mishap surprised him, but it didn’t freak him out.

The big problem is the way Mr. Moose handles strangers. He is extremely wary, to the point of aggression, with people he doesn’t know or understand. With dogs he is hyper-ballistic.

Learning to Walk All Over Again

I started Mr. Moose on the Martingale collar, a nylon collar with a slip-chain that can’t choke the dog. The good: the collar doesn’t choke and he can’t twist out of it. The bad: When Mr. Moose spies a Schnauzer and lunges to the end of his leash his instinct is to pull harder against the resistance. This turns a peaceful dog-walk into a fight with a barking marlin. The ugly: Strong, firm corrections don’t even register. I’ve had to give a really hard yank to get the dog’s attention.

Next we switched to a prong collar. After satisfying myself that the prong collar is not an instrument of torture, I found it to be a very useful tool for teaching Mr. Moose to heel. I’ll need to cover my training method in another post, because the prong collar alone won’t keep a strong dog like Mr. Moose in line. But it does provide a level of natural consequence that the Martingale collar didn’t. The good: Mr. Moose quickly learned that the most comfortable place to walk is by my side. The bad: It still takes a firm tug at times to give a correction. The collar needs to be used thoughtfully, and takes a certain amount of skill to administer. The ugly: The prong collar did nothing to keep Mr. Moose from lunging at the sight of other dogs. If anything it escalated his aggression, possibly because the collar was hurting him as he yanked and twisted on the end of the leash.

Now I’ve switched to using a Halti head collar. I’ve had disastrous results with head collars on other dogs, tugging, wriggling and generally causing freak-outs. But seeing that Mr. Moose had learned to heel and that his instinct to pull against resistance (cf. sled dogs) was now the major problem, it seemed like a head collar might work. True, he hates having his snoot looped, but it does prevent him from making sustained lunges. Now when he tries to pull against the leash instead of being like fighting a sailfish the effect is more like trying to land a 70 lb. flopping bass. The good: the dog doesn’t continue lunging forward against resistance. The bad: instead, the dog frantically moves backward, twisting, shaking and clawing at the head collar. The ugly: given enough twisting, he can escape the head collar. Fortunately there is a back-up lead that clips to his regular collar.

The important lesson here is that a training collar is simply a tool. The collar alone won’t correct a rotten dog’s behavior. I suppose this all goes back to the old joke:

Q. What’s the first thing you need to know in order to train a dog?

A. More than the dog.

Photo by Ildar Sagdejev