If you want to start a heated conversation among dog owners, just ask about their encounters with other dogs on the trail. Hiking with dogs comes with a set of responsibilities that some simply do not understand or just choose to ignore.
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. You learn as you go. I made poor choices and through my mistakes, learned how to share the trails with other users.
We seek the trails to find peace, quiet, and solitude, and to spend quality time in nature with friends and our pets. Allowing our dogs to run amok and disturb others leads to frustration, anger, and sometimes dangerous situations. Everyone has the right to enjoy the trails without disturbance.
The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs lays out a set of guidelines to consider next time you hit the trail for an outdoor adventure. The goal is to create an understanding of trail etiquette among all of us who hike with our dogs.
The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs
1. Thou shalt hike with your dog on leash if they are reactive or have poor recall
Be honest about your dog’s behaviors and accept them for who they are.
Hiking with your dog on leash isn’t a bad thing. Yes, of course, we all wish our dogs could prance along the trail off leash, sniffing and darting back and forth to their heart’s content, but it’s not for all dogs.
Signs your dog should remain on leash?
- Your dog is reactive to other dogs and people
- Jumps on people
- Barks at strangers
- Does not come when called
- Has a high prey drive
- Does not stay on the trail
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. Love your dog regardless and consult a trainer to work on their behaviors.
And if someone ever tells you that your reactive dog does not belong on the trail, they are wrong. You and your dog have the right to use the trail as much any other dog and human combination.
2. Thou shalt manage your dog on the trail.
This 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 our 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.
Laila whips her head from whatever she is doing and runs back to me.
What good recall does not look like:
Laila ignores me while running toward another dog.
Laila ignores me while barking at the other dog.
Laila 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 she is intruding on someone else’s space. In this situation, sprint immediately to your dog, remove her from the other dog, leash her, and apologize profusely. Please don’t repeat it with the next dog on the trail.
3. Thou Shalt Always be Training
No matter how old 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.
The trails offer a perfect opportunity to practice ongoing training with your dog. Take a 30’ leash, some high value dog treats mixed with their breakfast and practice.
What commands should your dog know for the trail, you ask?
4. Thou shalt never shout “my dog is friendly!” as they run, sprint, bound, or approach another user of the trail
That’s just super that your dog is friendly. Let’s throw you and your pup a party celebrating that very fact.
Mine is reactive.
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.
5. Thou shalt always ask permission before approaching a dog
Meeting other dogs is fun, but be mindful of the other person’s space. They may just want to continue on their peaceful hike without interruption. Alternatively, they could be training their excruciatingly overstimulated dog (hey, Laila!) and your imposition means that I cannot work with my dog.
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.
And hey, humans, especially of the parental variety, let’s follow the same rules of asking for ourselves and our kiddos. Just think about how you would feel if some stranger came up and hugged and kissed your kid without permission.
You’d probably want to bite, too.
6. Thou shalt listen to and accept when others tell us that their dogs are not friendly and we cannot pet them or allow our dogs to meet
I know, I know, you’re a dog behaviorist and you can tell by my dog’s body language how badly our dogs want to meet.
She doesn’t. I know her body language pretty well, and you know, that stiff stance and intense stare don’t actually mean “hey! Let’s be frens!”
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 do something that would make both my dog and me very uncomfortable and put you and your dog in a potentially dangerous situation.
Further, if we encounter a human who has pulled off to the side of the trail and put their body in between their dog and mine, this is not an invitation to approach. On the contrary, it means “move along and leave us alone.”
Yes, this means you, too, friendly dogs.
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, she did and you have to pick it up.
Carrying poop in a bag is cool. It proves that you’re Dog Mom AF 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?
Stash it in a Poo Vault! This handy little container clips to your pack and stores your dogs doo stink and squish free! And, since it’s attached to the outside of your pack, you’re far less likely to forget that it’s there when you see the next trash can.
For other tips on dealing with dookie on the trail, read How to Dispose of Dog Poop on the Trail.
8. Thou shalt obey Leave No Trace Principles – for you and your dog
The guidelines behind Leave No Trace for dogs go well beyond just picking up poop.
It means being considerate of other users. This includes not allowing your “friendly dog” to approach without permission (as discussed in Commandment #4). If you’re in a large group with multiple dogs, hike single file and/or spread out along the trail. Give way to other users, including, runners, equestrians, hikers, and bikers.
It means following the rules. First and foremost, make sure you’ve selected a dog-friendly trail. If the trail requires dogs to be on leash, then leash your dog. Sometimes, leash laws can be tricky to understand, so let me help you out.
When a sign at the beginning of the trail has a picture of a dog with a leash and the words “dogs on leash” written below it indicates:
- That your dog must be on leash for the entirety of the hike.
It does not mean:
- That you should only leash your dog when you see a park ranger.
- That you should only leash your dog when you encounter another user or dog.
- That you should become angry when a leashed dog following the rules reacts to your off leash dog who approached rudely.
- That you have the right the right to hike with your dog off leash just because you want to.
For a full guide on how to Leave No Trace with a dog, see here.
9. Thou shalt not ever use a retractable leash. Not on the trail. Not ever.
These leashes are useless and dangerous. 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.
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.