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Hiking Helper: Engagement Games to Play With Your Dog on the Trail

Originally published in the March 2021 Edition of Bay Woof 

The number one question I get asked when I tell someone we do off leash group hikes is “How do you make sure they don’t run away?” The answer is that we spend a TON of time working on recall. The other answer is that we work a lot on “engagement” - in other words, we find lots of ways to make it fun for the dogs to be around us. Let’s face it, when out hiking, there are a lot of distractions - wildlife, puddles, gross things to roll in, other trail users, dogs, bikes, horses, etc. There are also potential safety hazards. It’s not only important to build a solid recall - it’s equally important to work on engagement so that your dog learns that it’s FUN and rewarding to STAY near you. 

Here are five engagement games to mix into your outings with your dog. When working on new skills, it’s best to start in a low distraction environment first (like at home), and gradually build up the level of distraction. When out on the trail, make sure you always have plenty of tasty treats to reinforce your dog - and don’t forget to have fun! 

Touch (Hand Target)

Targeting is a great foundational skill! The goal here is to have your dog “touch,” or target, the palm of your hand with their nose. To teach a hand target, present your open palm in front of, or slightly to the side of, your dog’s nose, about a foot away. When your dog approaches to investigate, whether or not they actually touch your hand with their nose, mark that behavior with a “Yes” and give your dog a treat. Take your hand away for a few seconds, then present it again. Once your dog begins to consistently target your hand, you can add in the verbal cue “Touch.” Keep practicing, increasing the distance and the level of distraction. While out hiking, hand targeting can help guide your dog away from a distraction, or it can be a fun way to “finish” a recall to ensure that your dog comes all the way back to you. 


“Up” is a skill that can help build confidence and body awareness, while giving your dog an alternative to approaching or focusing on other dogs. The idea is for your dog to jump up on a tree stump, a rock, a bench - any raised surface. Start with small approximations - encouraging your dog to put their front paws up on a small raised surface - and work up from there. If your dog seems nervous or hesitant, don’t push it. Just keep finding little objects to practice on, and keep it fun. Over time, with practice, your dog may eagerly look for objects to jump up on while hiking! 

Find It

“Find It” is a super simple game that dogs love. Start by just tossing a treat on the ground a few feet away from your dog. After they “find” it, toss another one close by. Repeat until they get the idea, then you can add in the cue “Find It.” As you practice, you can toss the treats a bit farther away, or scatter a few treats at once for your dog to sniff out. Sniffing is very calming for dogs and it can also improve their mood! We’ll often scatter a few treats to help the dogs settle down after a big play session, or play “Find It” with some of the pups while the others play. 


Another simple one - have your dog catch a treat in their mouth! It’s more fun than just delivering a treat from your hand, and it requires your dog to focus on you. I start by holding my hand just slightly above the dog’s nose, encouraging them to lift their snout slightly, and dropping the treat straight into their mouth. As they get the hang of it, you can move your hand a bit higher, adding the cue “Catch.” Some dogs get really good at this game!

Rollie plays 'catch' on a group walk.

Rollie plays "catch" on a group walk.

Hide and Seek 

This is a recall game where you make it a little bit challenging for your dog to find you! Puppies and adolescent dogs love this one. To start out, while hiking, you can simply change direction and wait for your dog to notice and follow you. Of course, praise and reinforce your dog for “finding” you! You can gradually make the game harder - try hiding behind a tree or a bush and then calling your dog. Don’t make it too hard and create frustration - the idea is for your dog to enjoy searching you out! 

We always recommend using a long line when working on recall with your dog, especially in new environments. A long line can give your dog freedom of movement without sacrificing safety, and is a great tool to have as you work towards off-leash reliability. We offer long lines in a wide selection of lengths, widths, and colors! Read more about uses for a long line and about choosing the right size line

Liz Williams is the owner of High Tail Hikes. High Tail Hikes offers off-leash group hikes for dogs in Oakland, CA. We also make and sell custom BioThane leashes, long lines, and collars.