Hiking with your dog is pretty fun – even more fun, sometimes, than hiking with other people. It’s even better when you don’t have to worry about curbing your dog’s enthusiasm with a leash. But how do you successfully hike with your dog off-leash while keeping the peace with other trail users?
1. Know the rules.
Does the trail you’re planning on hiking allow dogs? Can they be off-leash? If not, you had better plan on keeping your pup leashed. You could be ticketed for having your dog off-leash in an area where dogs are required to be leashed. More importantly, you’ll face grumpy hikers on the trail who are expecting dogs to be leashed. Some dog owners specifically choose to hike certain trails with their dogs because the trails require dogs to be on leash – they may have reactive dogs who don’t necessarily play well with other dogs who come running up to them off-leash wanting to play. Remember that not every dog does well with other dogs; respect the limitations of other dogs, and make sure to only let your dog off-leash where it is permitted.
2. High value snacks are your friend.
When your dog sees a deer and prepares to take off for a chase, what do you think is going to hold him back? A dry dog bone or a soft, smelly, tasty piece of hot dog or cheese? While it’s quite possible that nothing will override your dog’s instinct to take chase, having a high value dog treat at the ready such as a hot dog or piece of cheese is a much more compelling reason for your dog to stick close to you than regular dog treats. High value snacks should be reserved for instances when the level of distraction is higher than normal and the dog needs extra incentive to focus. When your dog is out on the trail, sniffing new smells and exploring new sights, high value snacks are good to have along in case you need your dog to focus on you in a hurry.
3. There is no such thing as overtraining.
An off-leash trail is not the place to practice having your dog off-leash for the first time. By the time you reach an off-leash trail, you should have already have practiced off-leash behavior with your dog, whether it be in your backyard or in a deserted fenced-in park. In these small, controlled areas, you can practice letting your dog off-leash and calling him back to you. Be sure to use high value dog treats when practicing this – a good recall is very valuable and it’s worth paying your dog the good stuff for it. In addition to practicing “come”, making sure your dog has “sit” and “stay” on lockdown is also important before introducing new distractions on an off-leash trail.
4. Stay alert.
Is that a big boulder ahead, or a giant bear getting ready to eat your dog? Is the dog who is approaching from the opposite direction wagging his tail, or are his hackles up? As a handler, you need to be aware of what is ahead of you on the trail and what your dog might meet. Because your dog is likely running ahead of you on the trail, they will encounter dangers before you do. Stay one step ahead of your dog by scanning the trail ahead of your pup and proactively calling your dog back to you if you see any red flags ahead. As a general rule, I always call Moxie and Dublin back to me whenever I see that we are approaching other dogs or people on the trail. I also like to be close enough to them when they meet other dogs so that I can break up a dog fight if need be.
5. Regular Check Ins
When Moxie and Dublin are off-leash, I expect them to check in with me regularly. I keep tasty dog snacks in my pocket and will regularly call them back to me so that they keep their attention on me and pay attention to what I am asking them to do. We do this many times throughout the hike so that it becomes second-nature to them and I know they will come to me when I need them to.
6. Poop still happens, even off-leash.
Your dog doesn’t magically stop pooping when he is off-leash. It’s your job to watch him and hunt down that poop when it happens – even if it requires some bushwhacking to get to.
7. Never put that leash away.
It’s always important to keep a leash on hand in case you need it, even on an off-leash trail. Some urban off-leash trails will require your dog be on a leash when walking to or from the park, so you may need to have one anyway. You may meet some people with kids who are afraid of dogs; in these instances, I’ll call the dogs back to me and leash them as a courtesy. As a dog owner, I believe it’s my responsibility to be as responsible and courteous as possible so as to diminish any dog-human altercations that could cause us to lose the privilege of having off-leash areas.
8. Step aside.
Whenever we meet people on the trail, I stop and ask the dogs to sit off to the side of the trail (part of the reason we prefer less-populated trails – otherwise we’d spend the whole hike just sitting). This is a nice courtesy to other people on the trail by letting them pass easily and helping avoid the “Hi!! Can I sniff your crotch?” greeting that my dogs love so much. With so many dog owners letting their dogs run off-leash wherever they want, I find this is a nice touch that helps build some goodwill between dog people and non-dog people.