Camping with a Reactive Dog
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Last week was my first week back to work at the Sacramento SPCA since having my baby, which has been a big transition for us. It’s been a busy time with a lot to navigate, and we needed a bit of a getaway, so this weekend we headed out for our first ever dog-and-baby camping trip, which I’ve shared a bit about on Instagram! I’m going to get back into some reactive dog articles to build off of the previous posts I’ve shared, but I just wanted to hop on real quick and share some tips for camping with reactive dogs while it’s fresh! 


Taking a reactive dog camping can seem alternately dreamy or daunting. On the one hand, getting away from busy city living can seem appealing for those of us with reactive dogs! But on the other hand, camping can pose a lot of different challenges, and can mean some limitations on your management options. 


Picking your location

This is one area we didn’t do great with on this particular trip. We’re new to the area and kind of planned the trip on a whim without spending a lot of time researching different options (because let’s be honest - as busy working parents it’s a miracle we found time to plan the trip at all!) 


In general, you’ll want to look for campgrounds with ample space between sites, where you have a bit more privacy and aren’t going to be too close to other campers, who may also have dogs (or kids, or bicycles, or bearded men, or whatever your dog finds triggering). You certainly want to make sure the campground you’re staying at is going to have leash laws (for dog reactive dogs). For campgrounds on lakes/rivers/beaches, double check that the leash laws apply to the shorelines, too, as some places may require dogs on leash in the campsites but allow them to run free on the beach. 


Within the campground, pick your spot strategically, too. We did actually look at this a bit, and tried to find a spot that wasn’t right on the water (the campground we stayed at is on a lake) where there would be lots of foot traffic and water play. We also wanted to be a bit away from the walking trail. 


If your locations choices are limited, you can also plan your trip during a less busy time of the week - weekdays instead of weekends, for example. We are lucky that our “weekend” is Sunday/Monday, so the sites are presumably a little less hectic than they’d be for a typical Saturday/Sunday weekend. 



BYOM - Bring your own management

The one thing you don’t have on a camping trip are four solid walls, but there are lots of management tools you can bring on the go. Let’s go through some options:


Tie-outs/tethers

A sturdy tether is a great way to be hands-free while in your campsite. Be mindful that some dogs can and will easily chew through leashes or ropes, but coated metal tethers are options for those dogs. A tie-out is not a good option in a high traffic area where your dog is likely to be exposed to his or her triggers often, but a good choice for quiet spots. Carefully plan out how much length you will give your dog that will allow them to be comfortable, and possibly explore a little, but will not allow them to infringe on the space of others, enter trails or roads, or be a danger to passersby. Always supervise a dog on a tie out or tether as they can become tangled and injure themselves. 



Crates

Having a crate available is a great option for a dog that needs a safe space to retreat to. We use soft-sided travel crates for camping with our dogs, which I love, however because they are cloth instead of metal, I do not consider them a safe containment tool on their own. You can bring a hard crate, which is a more heavy-duty option, too. Some people have crate set ups in their cars, which can be a great option for cold weather or if you have a good cooling system for the vehicle. If your dog needs a visual barrier, you can always add a blanket or cloth (again, weather permitting). 



X-pens

You can use an x-pen to create a larger containment area for your dog. This would likely be a more viable option for smaller dogs, where there’s no concern of them jumping out, or knocking over the pen. A blanket or drape of some kind can also create a visual barrier in this scenario. 



Waist leash

One of my favorite all around go-to tools is a leash that clips around my waist. This makes me feel secure knowing my dog is close by at all times, while allowing me the freedom to use my hands. It’s important to feel confident that you’ll be able to maintain your balance in the case of an unexpected reaction from the dog, but I do generally feel that having my dog right by me allows me to see potential reactions before they arise and handle them quickly in the moment. 



Be prepared

Treats, treats, treats! Pack a lot of treats - the really, really good stuff! And make sure you have them handy at all times. The only time I took my treat pouch off during this trip was when I was handing it to my husband while I went to the bathroom, or when I went to bed (seriously). Every potential reaction can be a potential opportunity to do some counterconditioning and will help you create a strong reinforcement history for being around triggers in the wild. 



Give yourself some grace

It won’t be perfect and you’ll probably have a few “oh shit” moments. That’s okay! It’s all a part of the adventure. At one point on this trip, we walked past a campsite with not one, not two, but three reactive dogs. We did see it coming, so we made it past with only one “boof” from Muchacho, but what was a big challenge for us was also a reminder that we are operating from a place of heightened awareness of our dogs. Sure, those dogs’ owners made some effort to stop their dogs - yelling at them a bit, restraining the largest dog as the little chihuahua lunged at us from the very end of her flexi leash. But they were casual about it and those behaviors were clearly no biggie to them. I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority of “reactive dog owners” that I’ve observed have probably never heard the term “reactive dog” and have little to no interest in modifying their dog’s behavior. It’s just something their dogs do. So while I still take my dog’s behavior quite seriously, and believe it’s in both of our best interest for me to minimize my dogs’ exposure to triggers and to work on building positive experiences in the presence of other dogs, it’s a good reminder that no one else is thinking much about my dogs’ behavior at all.