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The Importance of Training When Camping with Dogs

If your dogs could talk, I’m guessing they’d let you know that dog-friendly camping is pretty high up on their list of favorite things to do — right up there with chomping on juicy bones and rolling in dead stuff. If you want to develop a relationship with your dog that enables you to delve into adventures big and small, training should be your very first priority.

By: Tara Schatz + Save to a List

We’ve had a rotating cast of adventure dogs in our lives, thanks to our role as puppy raisers for Guiding Eyes, and we’ve made a point of introducing all 10 of them to camping while they were still young. Without exception, every single one of them has loved our dog-friendly camping trips, and we have learned so much over the years about preparation, training, and gear to make camping with dogs stress-free and fun. 

With a well-trained dog by your side, you will find it easy and fun to travel, visit friends, hike, canoe, or just relax at your campground. Your dog will respect your boundaries, stay out of trouble, and remain safe, leaving you free to thoroughly enjoy yourself while camping.

You don’t need to teach your pup fancy tricks to go camping, but you should absolutely teach him some critical skills that will make camping more pleasant for everyone. We use relationship-based training with lots and lots of positive reinforcement. 

What is Relationship-Based Dog Training?

Flash, waiting for us to finish dinner so we'll play more fetch. Photo by Tara Schatz

Relationship-based training is a training technique that makes your relationship with your dog the center of all that you do with your dog. When your relationship with your dog is built on trust and respect, you will find that dog training becomes easier because your dog actually enjoys learning what you are teaching.

This method sees every experience as an opportunity to learn by reinforcing behaviors that you want to see while deepening and strengthening your relationship with your dog. As a motivator, we use tasty treats to reinforce a behavior (we mostly work with Labradors, who are highly food motivated). 

Ask yourself what motivates your dog and makes him want to continue working with you. Positive reinforcement can be in the form of treats, toys, belly rubs, or praise; it will be different for every dog, but the most important thing to remember is to stay connected. If you give your dogs 100% of yourself, they will give you 100% in return!

Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called

Nacho eventually chose me after contemplating a mad dash for this heron. Photo by Tara Schatz

When learned inside out, a solid recall will absolutely keep your dog out of trouble and away from harm when camping. The key is to practice come in stages. Start at home on a long line or in a fenced area until your dog will reliably come to you every single time you call.

When your pup has mastered come at home, you can introduce all kinds of distractions — other people, animals, toys, etc., before practicing on trails and in new places.

We reward every single come with tasty, high-value treats (freeze-dried liver) that are reserved only for recalls. The quicker the pups come when called the more we reward them, both with treats and with lots of praise. We call this having a "puppy party."

In the beginning, we never use the come command unless 100% sure they will respond. Once the dogs are coming reliably, we take a chance on calling them in situations where they may not want to come back to us. This is how they learn to choose us over distractions.

Teaching a good recall is not easy, but it is well worth the time investment, especially if you are interested in letting your dog off-leash when camping or hiking. 

Do not let your dog off-leash unless he will come reliably, and do not wait for an emergency situation to test out the recall. Practice it every single day, even with dogs who have it down. When camping, the come command will keep your dog safe from wild animals, and keep him from mixing with unfriendly dogs, unguarded camp delicacies, and annoying neighbors. 

More Commands Your Dog Should Know Before Going Camping

This is Ryan, a working guide dog in Vermont, who also loves to go camping. Photo by Tara Schatz

I think knowing how to reliably come when called is the most important skill for outdoor adventure dogs, even dogs that stay on leash most of the time. Here are a few more useful skills that will come in handy when camping with dogs.

  • Sit and Down– Sit and down are both useful for teaching your dog polite people greetings at the campground or when you want your dog to settle down while you cook up your camp meal. When you give the command, your dog should sit or lie down until you release him. 
  • Free – When you ask your dog to sit, you want him to sit until you release him. There is no point asking a dog to sit if in his mind it means sit for a few seconds and then continue on with whatever they were doing. The free command releases your dog from whatever command you just gave him. You don't necessarily have to use free as your release command; you can choose any release word, just be sure to use it consistently. 
  • Drop it and Leave it – Both of these commands will help keep your camp food safe from your dog’s voracious appetite and your dog safe from all kinds of undesirable scavenging opportunities. Believe me, there are a lot of these opportunities at most campgrounds! We use drop it when our dogs have picked up something that they shouldn 't have. Leave it is reserved for when our dogs are thinking of picking something up, but haven't decided yet. It's a gentle reminder that they should leave that hot dog on the grill until it's finished cooking.
  • Toileting on Command – Once your dog knows to reliably pee and poop on command, you’ll wonder why you didn’t teach him sooner. This skill is useful in so many situations, and when camping, it’s awesome because you get to pick your dog’s toilet away from your campsite. Pick a command that you don’t mind using in public. We use “get busy” with all of our Guiding Eyes puppies. To teach get busy, we start by saying it every time our new puppy uses the bathroom outside. We don't say it when puppies have accidents in the house. Instead, we rush them outside and use the get busy command. After a few weeks, they totally know the drill and will get busy whenever we suggest it. 

Flash loved every type of camping! Photo by Tara Schatz

Pleasing your dog isn’t hard, but if you want to see him dance with excitement, put on your hiking boots, and load up the car with camping gear. Adventure awaits, my friends, and nobody does adventures like our most loyal companions.

You can read more about camping with dogs, including what gear to pack, dealing with sleeping arrangements, and camping with reactive dogs over at Back Road Ramblers, where a version of this article first appeared. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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