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The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs

The 10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs

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. 

Man hiking with a dog.

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.

Dave and Laila hiking in the Sierra Nevada in Spain.

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, come!”
Laila whips her head from whatever she is doing and runs back to me.

What good recall does not look like:

“Laila, come!”
Laila ignores me while running toward another dog.
“Laila, come!”
Laila ignores me while barking at the other dog.
“Laila, come!”
“Laila, come!”
“Laila, come!”
“Laila, come!”
“Laila, come!”
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?

Come
Sit
Stay
Leave It
Look
Place

dog trail etiquette with Sora running.

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.

Guess what?

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.

What “Commandments” would you add to this list?

What stories do you have, good or bad, about encounters with other dogs on the trail?


10 Commandments of Hiking with Dogs Pinterest Image

Kelley

Sunday 12th of June 2022

Thou shalt provide water availability.

There should either be extra water with you or the dog's backpack. Since most folks allow their pups to drink from streams and rivers, one should consult with the vet as to anti-parasitics treatments.

Just a thought :)

Jen Sotolongo

Thursday 16th of June 2022

Absolutely! I mention that in several other hiking articles, I just don't think it's a part of trail etiquette. :)

Anastasia

Sunday 7th of November 2021

Pam, how many days straight do you hike without leaving the woods, that you cannot carry enough bottles of water and resort to drinking from rivers and creeks? I had no idea that hikers do this. Are you aware that wildlife, such as beavers and coyotes, use these water sources and may carry contagious parasites, such as giardia?

Jen Sotolongo

Sunday 7th of November 2021

Bringing water filtration is one of the 10 essentials and something I always bring with me, even on a day hike. It is pretty impossible to carry enough water to last for days, unless you want to add unnecessary weight to your pack. Filters get rid of any waterborne diseases, such as giardia.

Maria

Monday 28th of June 2021

Hi Jen,

This is an incredibly informative piece! Thank you for writing this! I'm actually preparing to camp with my corgi for the first time. We've taken her on many day hikes and day camping trips but I can definitely relate to a lot of the commandments written in this article! I'm actually really excited and am preparing her to go camping with us overnight for the first time!

While most of these comments are specific to hiking on trails, they're still incredibly useful and I hope you don't mind that I linked your article to my own blog post about camping with dogs for the first time - the post is basically a research summary of everything I've found particularly useful to better prepare for our own first camping adventure.

Our corgi is great when we go to off leash dog parks but has been become more leash reactive and frustrated on leash. She really wants to interact with other dogs when she's on leash and will bark, lunge and pull. It's something we've been working really hard to stem with positive reinforcement and we always give way on the trails to everyone else and give wide berth on the trail to work on her behavior. Sometimes though it's incredibly difficult to manage when we're on a trail with off leash dogs that approach out of curiosity. A lot of the dog owners do call out that they're friendly, and thankfully all of the ones we have met are. It just feels frustrating at times though because those interaction and play moments that do happen basically takes us a step back on her behavior because we're unable to manage her lunging and she's rewarded with play from the other dogs.

I've found that lately our only other solution is to basically just jog away in the opposite direction if we want to prevent the self-rewarding behavior!

I do wish that a lot more people knew the basic etiquette tips. I've been really lucky to run into only friendly dogs that just want to play or sniff out a greeting, but I've also read a lot more less pleasant incidents too!

Anyway thank you again for writing this great piece! It's definitely something that will be referenced back to and referred back to again if I ever need a refresher on the etiquette tips myself :)

Jen Sotolongo

Thursday 8th of July 2021

Hi Maria! I hope your camping trip went well and I'm sure your pup rocked it! I don't allow my dog to greet other dogs at all and do everything in my power to keep them away. I've had a ton of success using the e-collar to help with reactivity. It's an option if you've exhausted positive reinforcement only and I have several articles if you're interested to learn more!

Monroe

Saturday 8th of May 2021

That poo vault is amazing, I've never heard of that. And it's nice you say reactive dogs can also be on the trail. I don't have one currently but everyone needs exercise. I do wish people would be less afraid of using muzzles, then everyone can enjoy the trail without stress.

A word in favor of retractable leashes, I don't think they're the problem per se. I think the problem is when people think a dog on a leash doesn't have to be trained, the problematic nature of which is amplified by distance. People stop paying attention to their dogs when they're on regular leashes too, which kind of drives me nuts. Those seem to be the ones jumping on me or my dog as we pass each other while the owner tells me it's friendly. So I'd make a case that any leash is only a device to back up training, which just goes extra for a retractible leash. Since training is not an overnight thing, and sometimes you need a device for actual control, the regular leash is only half of the equipment. If a dog is a lunger then the collar and regular leash won't do squat, you need an Easy Walk, Halti, etc to prevent an incident on a shared trail (or sidewalk).

On the other hand if a dog has good wait/recall/heel, and people pay attention to what's coming down the path, and shorten the lead in advance, then I think a retractible leash is quite fabulous. I like that they allow for differing natural paces between dog and person. Especially on narrow scrambly ups and downs, but also on a sidewalk when I want to walk and Billie wants a sniff. It does only work when the leash is almost incidental, and it's not crowded. But we're frequently in such conditions.

(Rando training note: I only use the retractible on the back ring of a harness and never on a collar because of the training to pull thing. But I've also tied a knot a couple feet up so it doesn't retract fully and there's zero tension if he's right next to me. A genius idea that I can't claim, but it's bonus reinforcement for strolling next to me which I think is sort of neat.)

Jen Sotolongo

Friday 14th of May 2021

You're right, I keep meaning to amend my scathing remarks about the Flexi. It's rare that they're used properly, so I just turn people off of them, but you're right, when used for, say, recall training or for a sniffari with a dog that has recall, they can be great!

Chanda Harkins

Friday 15th of January 2021

Oh, my goodness. It's like you're in my head. Now, can you please stand at every trailhead and distribute this to hikers? Ha!

Jen Sotolongo

Monday 18th of January 2021

Haha I've thought about doing exactly that!