7 Tips for Teaching Your Dog to Climb/Rappel
Story and Photographs Contributed by Ruffwear UK Ambassador Megan Hine
I am owned by a husky named Tug, and when I am not traveling the world for work we are inseparable. At two and a half she has probably traveled around Europe more than the average human and frequently comes to work on survival and mountaineering courses with me. Early on, when we were getting to know one another, I was trying to figure out a way of taking her on more technical terrain. She seemed quite happy on steeper terrain and exploring among rocks and boulders, and she is super agile. I also didn’t want to stop going into these environments because of her. However, I wanted to take her into terrain only accessible by rappelling or scrambling, and I felt uncomfortable doing this without the proper equipment. After searching for dog harnesses and seeing pictures of military and police personnel rappelling with their dogs down the sides of buildings, I figured if I exposed her to this early on we’d be set for future adventures.
I discovered Ruffwear and their range of outdoor gear for dogs and found what I was looking for in a community of kindred spirits keen to let there be no boundaries for dogs within the outdoor arena. I discovered that there actually were specific harnesses for dogs, including the Doubleback™ strength-rated safety harness. And so our foray into vertical sports began. Here are some tips I discovered through the process of teaching Tug to be happy on the vertical. Some lessons were rather hard learned. I hope this helps you and your four legged adventurer take the next steps.
This is probably the most important tip. Dogs, like us, respond positively to fun. They love exploring the world and they love doing so with their two legged sidekicks. If you’re excited, likely they will be too. Dogs are incredibly sensitive creatures with attention spans that need to be coached and trained. When learning any new skill with your dog it is important to build up slowly, giving lots of breaks or a change of pace like a game of fetch. Tug, when she reaches the ends of her concentration span and is released from what she is doing runs madly in circles for a few minutes. This seems to shake off the stress and allows her to channel any negative energies out of her system. When I take her out climbing or anything involving her focusing and dealing with anxiety, I break it up with movement and games, oh, and cheese. She loves being bribed with small lumps of cheddar cheese and cooked liver. Favorite treats are a great diversion tactic from anxiety.
2. Take baby steps
I compare Tug very much to a toddler, albeit a fast moving one with large teeth. She has quite a high level of logical reasoning, as in she knows what behavior I think is right and wrong and how to manipulate a situation to get what she wants. This, however, appears to be totally overridden by an emotional response to a stimuli.
For example, she knows she is not allowed to chase deer and she knows it makes me angry with her. However, if a deer were to jump out in front of us on a hike or while we’re mountain biking if she sees it first her emotional response is to chase! Why? Because it is a self-rewarding occupation, the act of giving chase ignites a primal enjoyment and the adrenaline pumping through her system means she’s on a high. If I catch her the moment she spots it just before the adrenaline is pumped out she will stop at my command because at that moment the stimuli of me talking in a commanding voice is stronger than the seed of thought starting to grow in her mind of ‘chase’.
Dogs, like people, all have different thresholds of emotions including trust and fear. You may have a pup who is game for anything and trusts you implicitly or your four legged friend may be less trusting and need to analyze a situation first before committing. Having the empathy to understand that your dog may not be a natural climber is so important in building the bond of trust between your dog and you. Don’t take it for granted that your dog is OK. Like me and most humans, Tug has days where she feels more confident than others. On confident days she will explore her boundaries more, where on less confident days she wants to stay within her comfort zone. It is important if you wish climbing to be a long term activity with your dog that you do not push them too hard. They are resilient creatures but remember, emotions will override logical thought and if the emotion associated with harnesses and ropes is fear, this will be very hard to change. How do you know what your dog’s boundaries are? Body language is a good place to start.
4. Body Language
When participating in activities which may trigger strong emotions it is key to learn a little about how your dog communicates their emotions. Here are a few ways to tell your dog is afraid or happy.
Many people think yawning is associated with tiredness, and yes, it can be, but more often than not your dog is yawning because it is anxious. The yawn acts as a way to displace stress and inner conflict. If your dog is yawning a lot when you are trying to get him or her to climb, dial it down a few notches or return to playing fetch. A dog can displace a lot of negative energy just by moving around.
Licking nose and mouth or chewing/licking paws
Again, these are signs that your dog is anxious. As before, run around with your dog, make happy encouraging sounds. It may be that your dog is feeding off your own nervous body language. Taking anybody, even your dog, climbing for the first time can feel like a big responsibility and you maybe harboring anxiety and fear that your dog can pick up on. Running around with your dog will help displace your own nerves.
Tail between legs, cowering, hiding behind someone or something
These are all signs that your dog is not happy. If your dog is displaying these behaviors, it is probably best to do something else and rebuild the trust between you first.
Ears and mouth in a neutral position
This is a good indicator that your dog is calm. Pricked ears and a wagging tail is a good sign your dog is fully engaged and wants to learn or play. These are good times to be pushing your dog’s boundaries but keep watchful for change.
5. Keep them close
If you have a close bond with your dog, your presence is reassuring to them. You are most likely the boss, the pack leader who will safeguard them, and they look to you to fill this role. If you have this strong bond, then likely they will let you push them further emotionally because they trust you. When I am rappelling, depending on the terrain, my preference for where Tug hangs is on my lap or next to my feet. On my lap means she has the reassurance of my body, by my feet gives me more freedom of movement with my hands and torso but means that her feet hit the ground before mine which can mean she over balances me as she gets excited about paws on firm ground.
6. Consider hazards
Dogs, like us, are subject to the same hazards in the mountains as we are. Whereas you maybe wearing a helmet, chances are your dog isn’t. Be careful when on ice with your dog as well. When climbing on Pavey Ark in the Lake District in crampons and with ice axes, I witnessed a dog fall over the side of Jack’s rake because it slipped on ice. Although dogs are very agile in rough terrain, their paws do have limitations when it comes to ice and wet rocks.
7. The right equipment is key
Just like you need the correct equipment to go climbing, so does your dog. Climbing harnesses are certified for a specific use or several uses depending on the harness, i.e., recreational and industrial climbing. This stamp or certificate on the harness shows that it is strong enough to deal with the forces associated with climbing. Attachment points that will be weighted have been reinforced and the body’s position within the harness has been considered. The same goes for harnesses to be used by dogs. They have been tested and have been certified that the attachment points are strong enough to support the weight of the dog and any other associated forces. A sled harness or standard walking harness is not designed for this purpose and would be putting your dog’s life at risk if you were to use it as such. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions and if in doubt, ask for help.
What do I look for in a harness for Tug? There are a few harnesses on the market for dogs. Most are aimed at Search and Rescue dogs and are more like a sling. This means that once on the ground, the harness needs to be removed. My go-to harness is the Ruffwear Doubleback Harness. This harness has been designed with not only functionality and safety in mind but also comfort. The belly is a padded support so when the dog’s weight is fully supported by the harness the weight is spread out evenly across the dog’s belly. Rear leg loops, a must, ensure your dog can’t fall out of the harness backwards should they move around or be at an awkward angle. The rear leg loops can be stowed away in a pocket at the rear of the harness when not in use. All straps are adjustable to the size of dog and a custom fit can be gained to keep the dog snug within the harness. Due to the storable leg loops, the harness can be used for walks into a scramble or to the crag or obstacle. I personally wouldn’t use this harness for everyday use, not because it isn’t capable of this but because it is holding Tug’s life in it and I’d rather she wasn’t tearing through the undergrowth in it.
Megan Hine is a survival consultant and wilderness guide to TV crews and private clients in hostile & remote corners of the world, as well as author of Mind of a Survivor. She and Tug are Ruffwear UK ambassadors. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.