Hiking with dogs comes with a set of responsibilities that some simply do not understand or just choose to ignore.
If you want to start a heated conversation among dog owners, just ask about their encounters with other dogs on the trail.
I’ve been there. When I first became a new dog mama, I did not understand the rules. They’re not laid out in a pamphlet provided by the dog adoption agency or your breeder.
You learn as you go.
I made poor choices based on accepted societal norms and through my mistakes, learned how to responsibly share the trails with other users.
In the decade that I’ve been hiking and trail running with my dogs, I’ve come up with a set of guidelines that I follow when I’m out in the woods with my pup.
Hiking with Dogs Responsibly
I personally seek the trails to find peace, quiet, and solitude, and to spend quality time in nature with friends and my dog. When an uncontrolled dog approaches us without permission, I feel frustration and anger.
I feel this for a number of reasons:
- My dog is reactive. Hiking with a reactive dog can be incredibly stressful. If he starts a fight, he is the one who will take the blame, even though the other dog (owner, really) is the one at fault.
- Not all dogs and people like other dogs in their space
- It can be dangerous
- I don’t allow random dogs to approach my dog
- We are always training
- It’s rude
Everyone has the right to enjoy the trails safely and without disturbance from a random dog getting into their space.
To me, responsible hiking with a dog means that the owner has control over their dog, whether on leash or off-leash, at all times. The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs I’ve put together below illustrates the rules I wish all dogs owners followed when hitting the trails with their dogs.
The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs
1. Thou shalt not hike with your dog off leash if they do not have reliable recall
If your dog does not come back to you when you call them on the first time, every time, then they are not ready to hike off leash. Be honest about your dog’s skills.
Signs your dog should remain on leash? Your dog…
- Does not come when called
- Runs up to people and other dogs
- Chases wildlife
- Does not stay on the trail
- Disappears for several minutes (or longer) at a time
None of these behaviors indicates that you have a “bad dog.” It simply means that you have work to do to earn that off-leash freedom. Consult a trainer to work on their behaviors.
2. Thou shalt manage your dog on the trail.
Managing your dog means looking ahead and listening for approaching people, other dogs, and wildlife.
It does not mean replying to our latest comments on Instagram or gabbing on the phone to your bestie.
Hike proactively and be prepared to recall your dog to a heel or step aside when others pass by, especially on narrow trails or when you encounter hikers going uphill.
We talked about recall in Commandment #1. Let’s take a closer look at what proper recall looks like.
Fluffy whips their head from whatever they were doing and runs back to their owner.
What good recall does not look like:
Fluffy ignores me while running toward another dog.
Fluffy ignores me while barking at the other dog.
“Fluffy, come! Come, come, come, COME!”
“Fluffy, come here, now!”
“Fluffy, get over here!”
Fluffy continues to ignore me while bothering the other dog and person, while I just stand there repeating the same thing over and over.
Should this occur, go back and read Commandment #1 and listen carefully: Your dog is not coming back to you and they are intruding on someone else’s space. In this situation, sprint immediately to your dog, leash them, apologize profusely, and get them out of the other people’s space.
Don’t repeat it with the next dog on the trail.
3. Thou Shalt Always be Training
Commandment #3 is also known as ABT.
No matter how old or young my dog is, we are always, always training. On daily walks, trail running, hiking, camping, in the car. Whatever we do together, we are training.
Like any skill, dog training requires constant practice.
These are the skills and dog training commands I use and practice daily with my dog.
4. Thou shalt never shout “my dog is friendly!” as they run, sprint, bound, or approach another dog or person
That’s just super that your dog is friendly. Let’s throw you and your pup a party celebrating that very fact.
I am allergic to dogs.
My child is afraid of dogs.
I am running with my dog and don’t want to be interrupted.
We are working.
My dog and I are training right now and you are distracting us.
I just plain don’t like your dogs paws slapping me all over my body.
There are a myriad of reasons why you should never allow your dog to approach other users without their permission. Most of all, it is inconsiderate. The hiking trails are there for everybody and it’s not fair that your dog is ruining the experience for someone else.
Don’t be that dog owner.
5. Thou shalt always ask permission before approaching a dog
Never, ever allow your dog to approach another dog or person without first asking and getting permission from the person or owner.
Just think about how you would feel if some stranger came up and hugged and kissed or or your kid without permission.
You’d probably want to bite, too.
And hey, humans, especially of the parental variety, let’s follow the same rules of asking for ourselves and our kiddos.
Even seemingly harmless interactions can mean a big deal for some dogs. Walking past while making kissy sounds, snapping at, speaking in annoying high-pitched tones, and sometimes even making eye contact with a dog can disrupt a dog and their human.
6. Thou shalt listen to and accept when an owner communicate that they do not want their dog to be approached
I know, I know, you’re a dog behaviorist or a vet tech or a “trainer” and you can tell by my dog’s body language how badly our dogs want to meet.
Oh! Better yet, you’re a dog lover and all dogs love you.
Whoa there, Nelly.
Yes, yes, I know your dog is friendly. That’s swell. I’m very happy for you.
If someone tells you that you cannot pet their dog or that your dogs cannot meet, just say, “Ok! Have a great hike!” and continue on your way.
What not to say:
- Do not turn to your friend or child and say “Oh that dog is mean.”
- Do not tell me that I don’t know how to manage my dog.
- Do not tell me that I am rude for not allowing you to enter my dog’s space
- Do not tell me that my dog doesn’t belong on the trail.
Further, if you encounter a human who has pulled off to the side of the trail and puts their body in between their dog and yours, this is not an invitation to approach. On the contrary, it means “move along and leave us alone.”
7. Thou shalt pick up your dog’s waste
If a dog shits in the woods, but nobody is there to smell it, did the dog really shit?
Yes, they did and you have to pick it up.
Carrying poop in a bag is smelly, but way cool. It proves that you’re a rad dog owner and that you care about the trails and the other wildlife who call those woods home.
Is it ok to leave the bag on the side of the trail since my dog inevitably poops just far enough away from the parking lot that I don’t feel like running back to toss it and stashing it in my pack is gross and I know I’ll forget about it until my next hiking trip?
Er. Um. Well. Not really.
The practice may be “accepted” by dog people, but to other users it’s unsightly and irresponsible. Besides, you’ll probably forget to pick it up on the way back, remember when you reach the parking lot, and have to run back anyway to get it.
What is a better solution?
There are numerous minimally gross ways to carry and dispose of your dog’s poop while hiking.
8. Thou shalt obey Leave No Trace principles
Just as human recreators should follow Leave No Trace Principles, dogs should as well. I even put together a version for dogs.
Dog owners need to be prepared for emergencies for their dogs just as much as the need to be prepared from themselves.
There are many things that could go wrong while hiking with your dog, such as:
Going out prepared will help you have more control should something go wrong while you’re in the backcountry.
9. Thou shalt not ever use a retractable leash, unless you know how to use one correctly.
The majority of people I see using retractable leashes do not use them safely. These leashes can be dangerous when used incorrectly. Here’s why:
- They can cause serious injuries to both dogs and humans, including burns, cuts, and even amputations.
- The thin cord is not conducive to controlling a dog at full extension. You don’t want to have to fish your dog back to you when you face a stressful situation.
- They don’t teach a dog to walk nicely and instead reinforce pulling.
- The cord isn’t all that strong and can break if your dog sees something fun like a wild animal on the trail.
- They don’t help dogs communicate well. An approaching dog may see your dog pulling toward him, but not the leash attached. This looks like aggressive behavior to the other dog.
Where flexi leashes can be useful is when an owner is working on recall with their dog and they are using the leash like they would use a long line.
10. Thou shalt advocate for your dog
As a soft-spoken introvert, I know how hard this can be for some people. It took me a long time, and several embarrassing and uncool moments for me to finally learn to advocate for my dogs.
Advocating for your dog means understanding their fears and protecting them from other dogs, people, and dangers.
What exactly does advocating for your dog look like?
- If your dog is reactive with other people, dogs, and especially kids, make that extremely clear before it’s too late. It sucks having to tell people that “my dog is not friendly” even if they really, truly are, but it gets the point across in an efficient manner.
- It means body blocking your dog when another approaches to prevent interaction.
- It means leashing your dog when they need to be leashed.
- Learn your dog’s body language by watching how they stand when another dog approaches, how stiff they get when a human hand comes near their face. Watch for every flick of the ear or tail and learn what these movements mean so you can intervene appropriately.