In the early going with a new dog, it goes without saying that the dog should be leashed up. No discussion. In these early stages as well, socialization takes place primarily between handler and dog. Socialization with other people/animals is understood to mean ignoring other people/animals and focusing on the handler. There are times, however, where avoiding contact with people and their dogs might be difficult. Hiking trails can get busy and people/dogs can show up unexpectedly. Here are three strategies for mitigating potentially stressful trail encounters:
Strategy #1 – Avoid entirely.
This is my preferred method with a new dog, where I’m trying to keep as much distance between my dog and other people and their dogs. To the extent possible, I’ll get off trail, circle around, or take a different fork on the trail.
Strategy #2: Step aside.
Sometimes, we have no choice but to come into closer contact with people on the trail. In that case, I’ll step aside and let the group pass. I handle any reactivity or fear in my dog constructively, keeping her focused on me verbally and using food to reward her focus. Depending on the situation, I might greet the passers-by briefly or ignore them entirely, expressing non-verbally our unavailability to interact. At the same time, I’m modelling a let’s-ignore-things stance to my dog.
Strategy #3: Walk through.
In this scenario, we have a budding bond with our dog that allows us to walk through a group in close quarters. As we approach the incoming group, I hold my dog closely and firmly, keeping my hand close to the collar while maintaining as loose a leash as possible. My stance indicates that we need to walk through swiftly and that we’re not interested in lingering. If I have a light enough dog, I might consider lifting and carrying the dog a few steps through the group.
Before you even embark on a hike, consider these potential situations and whether hiking with your relatively new dog is even a good idea at this point. Think objectively about your own handling capacity, your dog’s current attitude, and the safety of your dog, yourself, and the public. Bottom line: With a new dog on our hands, our aim is to imprint nothing but good experiences!