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Train Your Dog for the Outdoors

Leash=good. Pulling=bad. Photo by Mary Reed.

You're out on a sunny weekend hike with your pooch and decide it wouldn't hurt to take him off his leash. Sure enough, a family out with their small children approach and Fido wants to play. The family members, who are not as excited to play, roll their eyes as they listen to your pleas for Fido to "stop," "come" and "get down." Everyone knows who's in charge here.

Amy Flanigan of Civil Obedience Dog Training in Columbus, and member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, offers some of the essentials to keep in mind when training your dog for the outdoors:

Teach her to come. While outdoors, Amy says the "come" command can be used to call your dog away from wildlife, people or areas of the trail she shouldn't be exploring. She lays out two important rules to follow when training your dog to come: first, never punish your dog when she comes to you, and second, always reward your dog with a treat when she comes (soft and chewy treats work best for young pups in training).

Amy recommends practicing in a variety of enclosed areas before taking your dog out in an unfenced location.

Teach him to walk (not pull) on a leash. According to Amy, the cardinal rules of leash training are to start early and don’t ever let your dog pull. "Dogs pull because it works," she says. "Dog drags owner, owner follows."

For those dogs who already have a history of pulling, or who are so excited by the thought of going for a walk that they become unmanageable, Amy recommends using either Gentle Leader head collars or Easy Walk harnesses, both made by Premier. Both will prevent pulling so that you can then reward your dog with tasty treats for walking next to you with a loose leash.

While Amy teaches her students that dogs can be off-leash anywhere, she advises that they always should have an "invisible leash" on the dog. Owners should keep attention focused on their dog and the dog should be checking in with its owner and respond to the recall command ("come") when summoned.

Teach her to heel. The "heel" command is great when Fido gets the urge to check out some of your fellow hikers. The command tells the dog that she needs to be at your side focused on you and nothing else. When teaching your pup how to obey "heel," Amy recommends following the same rules for “come” training (above) – eventually she will be able to "heel" off-leash.

"'Heel' is a position command, not necessarily a distraction command," says Amy. "Although, the dog should be able to stay in heel position (at the owner's side) around all distractions."

Teach him to stay. The "stay" command is useful when greeting other people on trails or when you need your dog to wait while you set up equipment, or stop to eat or rest.

When starting to teach stay, Amy says it's best to start by asking the dog to sit or lie down, and then counting to two or three. If the dog has held the sit or down, release him with a special phrase, such as "free" or "all done." Make sure to reward him with a treat after he gets up.

Each day, add a few seconds to the time; once you've reached 15 to 20 seconds, you can try walking away from the dog.

Keep training. No matter how good your dog may seem to be at obeying your commands, Amy says it's important to keep in mind that these behaviors are "ongoing projects" throughout the life of your dog. "Dogs don't learn these commands and then comply all the time. They need constant maintenance for the learning to ‘stick.'"

As for the appropriate age at which to start training and the age-old question: Can an old dog really learn new tricks? "The earlier the better," Amy says. "But any dog can learn at any point in his or her life, just like humans!"

Ali Wayner is the proud owner of Gus, a (very) poorly trained wiener dog.