top of page

Shaping a Trail Dog: 12 Tips for Success

All dogs love the outdoors and most really enjoy a trip into the backcountry, where there’s freedom to roam off leash, sniff, dig, and explore all that nature has to offer. I’ve written before about camping with dogs, and camping with puppies, because I believe our four-legged friends have so much to offer us on trips into the wild, not the least of which include security and companionship.

Mid-2018 we got another puppy, the third dog we’ve raised now from a few weeks old and on. This one’s a German Shepherd, a breed we weren’t seeking purposely but the litter we found at the right time was at a good home and, well, it seemed like a good idea… We’ve been surprised and challenged by some of the nuances of the breed (I’ve got another post planned on that, actually), but we’re so pleased with this pup’s warm personality, loyalty, intelligence, and physical prowess! Over the past year we’ve been able to expose him to various activities that have helped in shaping him so he can safely enjoy our adventures in the backcountry. I’m not a dog trainer nor a dog expert, but here are 12 things that we’ve tried or learned with our newest pup in the great outdoors.

1. Choose a breed and size of dog that works for you. If you’re looking for a puppy, or to adopt a dog, think about your backcountry needs. Some people prefer to dispersed camp on easy trails in small campers – those folks might want a smaller breed. For us, protection from predators is important and our dogs are definitely part of our bug-out plan. To that end, we like larger breeds, especially ones that are trainable, loyal, have a daunting appearance and won’t ever give up the fight, if needed.

He's gonna be a trail dog someday...

2. And then work with your dog breed’s strengths and weaknesses. Some breeds naturally need and want more exercise on trail or at camp, and some are content to chill in the tent or camper most of the time. This can also depend on the dog’s age, but knowing what your dog needs to be happy and providing that in the backcountry can help make the experience more positive for everyone.

Chillin' in the great outdoors at 8.5 weeks of age...

3. Shots first. Our puppy’s first camp outing wasn’t until Labor Day weekend 2018, after he had all his necessary shots. The last thing we wanted was for him to tackle a rabid animal before his rabies shot.

Rides in the open Jeep started at 9 weeks old to get him used to the wind and noise. He loved it!

4. But, adventure early. Start venturing into the backcountry as early in your puppy’s life as possible. The earlier they have positive experiences, the more likely those experiences will imprint on them and they’ll remember the good times in the future. Make sure early adventures are positive, not negative, and include lots of treats and rest.

Hiking during camp adventures, four months old.

5. Take frequent breaks. Dogs of all ages need rest, especially when in the backcountry, and especially when they're young. Make sure they have a comfy and quiet spot to nap and consider bringing some toys or chews to occupy the dogs quietly when needed.

A favorite toy brings the comfort of home...

Nap time!

6. Allow freedom. One of the best things about backcountry camping and trail runs is that the dogs can be off leash to explore and sniff and run. We don’t allow digging in our backyard but in the backcountry they can get as dirty as they like!

Digging to...somewhere...

7. But practice those recalls. “Come when called” training is so important and takes frequent practice and reinforcement. Be prepared with a leash or long lead in the backcountry in case your pup decides not to come back when called. Treats usually work to recall a dog, but one time is enough – if they don't listen, leash ‘em up until they can obey; their life may depend on it. (We’re still working on this command with our puppy, who likes to go off and explore, but our 3-yr Shepherd mix obeys it very well).

Recall practice...

8. Other training. Enroll in local dog training to ensure your pup learns at least the basic commands, again which may save his life. “Leave it,” “drop it,” “come,” “stay” or “wait” should all be learned and obeyed without hesitation. Obedience is so important in the backcountry when your dog wants to approach a snake or anything else they need to leave alone.

Practice is easier with a valuable reward...

9. Adventure often. Backcountry skills and obedience will only become habitual if they are practiced. When camping, it helps a lot if you’ve camped enough with your dog that they know their spot in the tent or camper. Or they know to stay close to camp and not wander off. Frequent adventures and reinforcement of positive behavior will help make each backcountry experience better than the last.

We bring 'the boys' along whenever we can!

10. Adventure safely. I’m sure you’ve got a human first aid kit tucked away in your gear or vehicle. Make sure you also bring items for your dog. At a minimum, I think dog first aid should include styptic powder to stop bleeding, bandaging materials, an allergy med like Benadryl, and something to induce vomiting. Also include any prescribed medications your dog might need, whether they take them regularly or not.

This kit is a good one, but I added a container of styptic powder to it. You could also make your own kit.

11. Keep your sense of humor! Sometimes I am at the end of my rope with our Shepherd puppy. I was completely unprepared for how obstinate and unstoppable this breed can be. And yet, when he looks at me and cocks his head and yips, it warms my heart and I can’t help but laugh! I know he’ll get even better with age and laughing helps me get through the challenging spots.

"Oh, hello there!"

12. And enjoy every minute! Young dogs and puppies love to play and watching them together is like free cable, in my opinion! They’re funny and silly and crazy and they remind me to not take life so seriously.

The chase is on...

Hopefully what I’ve learned and listed here is helpful to you too. Give your dog(s) a hug, a treat, and a good butt scratch today! They are wonderful and loving animals and I couldn’t imagine my life without ours.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Trails!


by Dawn Gallegos

Dawn Gallegos is the founding editor of the Chicks On The Rocks blog. When she's not working to fund her Jeep habit she's thinking up new ways to inspire others to explore the great outdoors!


bottom of page