Trail Tips: Staying Safe in the Wilderness

Trail Tips: Staying Safe in the Wilderness

When we think about dangerous animal encounters, grizzlies and cougars usually come to mind, but even a dog who takes off after a squirrel can find itself in a life-or-death situation. Mastering the “emergency down” and “heel” commands will help your dog (and others) stay safe when you come nose to nose with unexpected critters.

Caren and Steve Wick live in South Lake Tahoe, California, with their three dogs, Atka, Nukka, and Shiya - you may know them as @AtkaandNukka on Instagram. Atka, whose name means “protector” in Inuit, is a GSD/Siberian Husky mix, Nukka (“little sister”) is a low-content wolf dog, and Shiya (“snowflake”) is a Dutch Shepherd who works with Heavenly Ski Patrol and is training as an avalanche rescue dog.

Caren and Steve’s pack happens to consist of dogs with very high prey drives, as well as different reactivity levels. Since they spend a lot of their time exploring the beautiful and often busy trails around Lake Tahoe, it’s imperative that they’re trained to behave appropriately when they are off-leash.

“Regardless of where one lives, be it in the city, the suburbs, or rural areas, dogs need to be well behaved,” Caren says. “Our dogs may encounter mountain bikers, hikers, skiers, bears, porcupines, etc. and we need to make sure that their voice control is 100 percent to make sure that all parties are safe.”

That’s one of the reasons Caren and Steve continually seek to improve their training techniques. “Steve has worked with California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), as well as the Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs team, extensively to develop the skills necessary to be an effective search and rescue (SAR) dog handler, and we both have spent time working with K9 Development and Mannered Mutts,” Caren explains.

Caren believes that the “emergency down” and “heel” commands (and reliable recall, of course) are essential to both our dogs’ and wildlife’s safety, helping them to live in harmony. The “emergency down” asks your dog to lie down immediately, wherever they are - and yes, this is very useful in urban environments, too. Here’s how to do it:

Emergency Down

“Emergency Down” gives you time to figure out what’s going on & how to proceed safely.

  1. “‘Signal, Pressure, Praise’ is the mantra we train by,” Caren says. “In the case of ‘down,’ the signal would be the command, the pressure would be guiding the dog into position with downward leash pressure, and praise can be a simple marker-word, such as ‘yes,’ a well-timed treat, or a loving ear scratch.” This introductory training would be best indoors, with minimal distraction.
  2. Once your dog has mastered “down,” add in a second mantra: “Distance, Duration, Distraction.” Put a few steps between you and your dog as you give your command. Also try walking away from your dog during “down” and return prior to releasing. (Reward!) This teaches your dog to drop and remain in “down” until released with a cue, regardless of the distance between you.
  3. Some dogs may want to come to you before they lie down. If that’s the case, just walk them back to where they were when you gave the command and use “down” again. Gradually increase your distance as you give this command. A long leash can be helpful here, especially if your dog’s recall isn’t 100 percent.
  4. If your dog continues to return to you before their “down,” you may back-tie them to something like a doorknob to show them that they can “down” when you’re not next to them.
  5. Gradually build up the duration of the “down,” up to 10 minutes.
  6. Add in distractions: Move to a busier room in the house, then to the back yard, the front yard, parks, and so on.
  7. Don’t forget your release cue, often something like “okay” or “break,” which allows them to continue doing what they were doing.

“The ‘emergency down’ is a long process that continuously builds upon itself in increasingly difficult situations. When you can ‘down’ your dog off a bear that is 20 feet away, in a full run to say hi to the neighbor, or in the middle of its dinner, then you know the dog has mastered it.” Caren says. “Then it's all about maintenance with daily practice.”

Caren says that while flawless recall may also be effective in a lot of situations, she and Steve have found that when wildlife is involved, asking your dog to lie down and stay until released helps them to break free of the prey-drive mindset. “Especially when we practice it every, single day, in multiple situations, including mid-squirrel chase,” she adds.

It also may help your dog to appear less threatening to animals that are prone to charging and attacking when they perceive threats, like grizzly bears, moose, and even other dogs. 

“We had a moose encounter in Idaho, when a big bull moose appeared out of the dense woods right in front of us on the trail. I immediately downed the dogs and froze. It eventually walked away,” Caren says. “I also use the command for speeding skiers and mountain bikers approaching, when we are scrambling up mountains and the dogs are kicking rocks down at us, and when I see a place where I would like them to stop so I can assess the safety of continuing or help them up.”


Heel keeps your dog close and under control.

The “heel” command asks your dog to come to your side and walk (or stand) closely beside you, matching your pace, which keeps your dog focused on you while walking past any number of distractions.

  1. Signal the “heel” command.
  2. Apply gentle pressure (use the leash to guide the dog into position) and hold a high-value treat in your closed hand at your hip to help your dog understand the position expected.
  3. Praise! (Give them that treat!)
  4. Repeat!

“Many dogs will need more pressure than a lead and a collar can provide,” Caren says, “so martingale collars, prong collars, or e-collars can be helpful if used correctly. We strongly advocate that handlers unfamiliar with these tools seek training in how to correctly use them.”

Recall Refresher

Good recall can remove your dog from potentially dangerous situations and bring them back to you (safety).

 “Recall is all about making the handler more interesting to the dog than anything else,” Caren says. “[And] the basics still apply - ‘Signal, Pressure, Praise’ and ‘Distance, Duration, Distraction.’ Build slowly and make sure that a dog has mastered each phase before increasing the difficulty.”

  1. Start with recalls while the dog is on a 6-foot leash. Signal “come” or your command of choice.
  2. Use a high-pitched voice & move backward to generate excitement.
  3. Praise with extremely yummy treats, like boiled chicken, hot dogs, and cheese. Dry kibble is generally not a great motivator for training.
  4. Progress to a long line, and finally to off-lead.
  5. Gradually add in distance and distractions.

And remember, “There are no bad dogs, just bad (or inexperienced) handlers,” Caren says. “The relationship between dog and handler is the most important aspect of any training. The dog needs to know and trust that the handler will keep them safe. [And] your dog knows if you are paying more attention to your phone or TV than them. Pay attention to your dog and they will pay attention to you.”

Caren does want to note that she is not a trainer, (just someone who loves training her dogs in the wilderness!) and that if you're having difficulty with training - definitely seek professional help and of course, do NOT use force or harsh punishments. 

Happy Trails!