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Unequivocally, one of the most heated topics in the hiking with dogs world relates to off-leash users.
All too often, we encounter a dog on the trail whose human is nowhere in sight, or oblivious, or comatose. The dog may or may not be aggressive, but he’s interrupting our activity to meet our dogs. Maybe he is aggressive and attacks. Maybe he just looks aggressive, but we have no way of determining his intentions. Perhaps our own dog is not friendly with other dogs. Some people aren’t even hiking with dogs, they just fear them or plain don’t want them in their space.
A myriad of reasons exist as to why this discussion comes up regularly in Facebook groups, on Instagram, and in blogs (such as my own).
We seek the trails to find peace, quiet, and solitude, to de-stress, and to spend quality time with friends and our pets.
Approaching dogs, whether friendly or not, disturb users’ experience and cause frustration. In a perfect world, all dogs would be on leash or have perfect recall, but it’s just not how it works.
The following lays out a set of guidelines to (strongly) consider when we head out on the trail, with the goal of creating a trail etiquette agreement among all of us who hike with our dogs. Comment below to tell us what we left off or parts that you disagree with. Tell us about your trail experiences — both positive or negative. What have you learned hiking with your own dog?
Hiking with Dogs Trail Etiquette Manifesto
We, the users of the trail who enjoy hiking with our dogs, agree to the following in order to generate harmonious interactions with all those we encounter on the trail.
1. We agree to accept our dog for who she is and understand that she may not be the best candidate for off-leash hiking. If our dog tends to pick fights with other dogs, barks at strangers, ignores recall attempts, or has a high prey drive, then we agree to love our dog regardless, and do our best to avoid altercations with others by keeping her on leash at all times. Unless we hike at 5am. Then we’re probably ok off-leash.
2. We agree that if we do wish to hike off-leash with our dogs, then we will manage them attentively.
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.
3. We agree to Always be Training.
The trails offer a perfect opportunity to practice ongoing training with your dog. Recall, sit, stay, wait, leave it, look. Hey, go on enough hikes, and you just might earn your dog off-leash privileges in accordance with this manifesto. Just don’t forget the high-reward treats. No treats, no service.
4. We agree to always ask permission first before allowing our dog to do any of the following towards another dog or human: run, sprint, or walk up to someone, sniff a butt, sniff a face, lick a face, hump, jump on, or any other interaction.
Yes, yes, we know your dog is friendly. That is just wonderful. Let’s throw you and your pup a party celebrating that very fact.
And hey, humans, especially of the parental variety, let’s follow the same rules of asking for ourselves and our kiddos. Just pretend like some stranger is hugging and kissing your kid without asking or encroaching in your personal bubble. You’d probably want to bite, too. We know our dogs are really stinking cute, but if we value our fingers and toes, let’s just practice this courtesy.
5. We agree to listen when others tell us that their dogs are not friendly, rather than brush it off and continue approaching regardless.
Yep, we know your dog is friendly. And please don’t tell us that you are a dog behaviorist and then inform us that our dog does indeed wish to meet. He doesn’t. I’m fairly certain that I pick up his poop and you do not. You do not know my dog better than I do.
6. We agree to communicate with others by using the commonly understood, yet highly ignored phrase “my dog is not friendly.”
We know yours is, we threw you both a party, remember? It’s a tough phrase to say to others, because in reality, our dog might not really be all that unfriendly, but perhaps he gets excited easily, or pulls uncontrollably, or is scared or nervous.
7. We agree to recall our dog, restrain her, and step aside when we see others approaching.
Keep in mind that recall is not simply the act of calling our dog’s name repeatedly while they ignore us, allowing them to continue approaching the unassuming dog and human. Our dog must return in order to score a perfect 10.0 on recall. Here’s a training video featuring a cute Corgi puppy named Cheeto, to help your efforts. Remember, Always Be Training.
8. We agree that if we see a human put their body in between your dog and their dog, short leash him, and take out a treat to distract them from meeting yours that this is not an invitation to allow your dog to approach without permission.
On the contrary, it signifies the opposite. This is a non-verbal cue for you to move on. For the love of DOG, we get it, your dog is friendly.
9. We agree that, if our dog has zero recall, but we refuse to leash him on trails, despite the fact that he never comes when called and we always seem to leave those treats in the car, thus unable to Always Be Training, we solemnly swear that we will never stand like a petrified raccoon 10 feet away from our own dog and watch and stare while our dog accosts the approaching dog whose human has inserted her entire body to block the two dogs from interacting and call his name over and over.
Listen carefully: He’s not coming back to you and he is intruding on someone else’s space and time. Sprint immediately to your dog, remove him from the other dog, leash him, and apologize profusely. Please don’t repeat it with the next dog on the trail.
11. We agree that if we see any of the following users on the trail: runners, horses, mountain bikers, motorized vehicles, groups with multiple dogs, or a gaggle of geese, that we will always, without fail recall, secure our dog and then step to the side to allow other users to pass.
Think about it practically, how do you really think your dog will fare against a gaggle of hissing geese?
12. We agree that if we so desire for our dogs to run around and play with other dogs, that we will save this for parks designated for such activities.
They are called dog parks. These differ from hiking trails in that they are allocated for the specific use of co-mingling with other off-leash dogs. In these parks, all humans unanimously agree and understand that their dogs may run amok freely.
13. We agree to practice Leave No Trace Principles and discard of our pet’s poo.
Bear or coyote poop found on the trail? Pretty cool (or unnerving, depending on your situation). Dog poop? Not cool.
We all carry poop bags right? Another fondly debated topic in hiking with dogs world is whether or not it is acceptable leaving poop bags on the side of the trail to pick up on return. And then we always remember to pick it up on our way back? And if we forget, then we run back and go get it, right? There are no excuses, our dogs all poop within the first 200 meters of the trail. It’s not that far. An alternative and preferred method is to use something like a Poo Vault or a Nalgene bottle dedicated to poo stashing. Just don’t drink from it later.
Sometimes we forget poop bags or unexpectedly run out. It’s OK. Just like shit, it happens. Here’s what we do in this situation a) we ask our pal if they have an extra bag, or b) the old poop stick flick trick. It’s just like being at the driving range. Just find a good stick and flick it away.
The British Forestry Commission has recently been encouraging the stick flick trick in lieu of poop bags, and even share a little ditty to help us all remember how to fling poop, for those of us who are not well-practiced in the age old art of dog poop golf.
“If your dog should do a plop, take a while and make a stop, just find a stick and flick it wide into the undergrowth at the side.
“If your dog should do a do, you don’t want it on your shoe, find a stick, pick a spot, flick into the bushes so it can rot.”
These trail etiquette guidelines are not intended to serve as a mandate that all dogs must be on leash at all times. Some dogs perform just fine off leash, others, not so much. Rather, the purpose is to create a set of standards with which we comply in order to keep our experiences on the trail positive, safe, and without incident.