Trail Etiquette 101: 4 Tips for Safe Encounters With Off-Leash Dogs on the Trail

Trail Etiquette 101: 4 Tips for Safe Encounters With Off-Leash Dogs on the Trail

What do you do when you encounter unruly, off-leash dogs on the trail? I have had many encounters with off-leash dogs that either do not approach appropriately or have come up to my dogs and me aggressively.

A couple years ago, I personally had an encounter with two dogs that resulted in me essentially throwing my dog onto the hood of my Suburban to get her away from them. We were lucky that we had just finished our run, that my friend was there to help, and that my dog is small enough to lift onto the hood of my car. To make things worse, when the owner finally came into view, he didn’t even attempt to get his dogs because he was carrying his fishing gear. I’m not going to lie, words were exchanged.

As a dog trainer, I couldn't help but think of my clients and how I could help them deal with situations like the one I had just experienced. We started to add new techniques into our training sessions to teach our clients how to not only read other dogs and people, but how to properly manage these potentially dangerous situations and get their dog to follow their directions at all times.

Here are some training tips and tricks to help keep everyone safe on the trail. Keep in mind that every situation is different, so use your discretion and do what feels most comfortable. The best way to break up a dog fight is to avoid them! Be proactive and practice your handling skills.

1. Recall, recall, recall. With a solid recall on everyone’s part, these negative encounters would happen less. To help your dog understand that ‘come’ means ‘come,’ recall them off everyone and everything. I always say that it doesn't matter if it’s a friend or foe, your dog should recall off everything. This doesn't mean they don't ever get to say hello or play, it just means that the entire situation needs to be under control and there needs to be verbal confirmation that a greeting is okay. For tips, check out our post on recall training.

2. Learn appropriate “collar grabs.” There are a few ways to help manage a situation with a collar grab. We recommend practicing with your dog at home by using treats to teach them to go with your direction.

The first type of collar grab that helps keep your dog under your control is the “body-block.” This is when you take your dog’s collar while standing face-to-face with them. Using both hands, grab your dog’s collar under their chin, putting their muzzle between your forearms or legs, depending on their size. This is a great way to keep control of your dog’s head. To body block, add movement in all directions and reward them for going with your direction. This is also helpful if you need to put yourself between your dog and an oncoming dog.

The second type of collar grab is the “on-by” collar grab. This one comes most naturally. Grab your dog’s collar near the back of the neck and add foreword movement. Practice with your dog on both sides. The goal of this type of collar grab is to be able to run or walk fast by another dog or animal. Keeping hold of the collar makes sure your dog is close to you and you have them under control.

Keep in mind that regardless of whether your dog has a solid recall, you can help alleviate stress on others by grabbing or leashing your dog when necessary. If someone is out with their children or has a dog who gets nervous around other off-leash dogs, do them a favor and grab your dog to pass by.

It’s important to practice collar grabs before situations where you may need it and to keep your dog’s association with them positive. According to “Dog Star Daily,” 20 percent of dog bites occur when an owner is attempting to take a dog by the scruff or collar. Avoid grabbing your dog by the collar to do anything he finds unpleasant. Instead, start by rewarding a collar grab with treats and work up to where you can hold the collar and walk several steps. 

3. Communicate! There is nothing wrong with asking someone to call their dog, whether that’s telling them that your dog can’t say “hello” or informing them that your pup gets nervous with off-leash dogs. If they are not taking you seriously, use some key words that will get their attention, like “aggressive” or “bite.” If you’re in a situation that you’re unsure about, there’s no shame in trying to get someone to manage their dog. I often tell people my dog can’t say hello when we are trail running because I don’t want to stop, and my dog is having fun with me running in the backcountry.

4. Understand body language. Being able to read everyone’s body language is helpful in deciding what your action will be in a situation with another dog.

Most of us know the general body language of a dog that you might not want to approach: Barking, growling, showing teeth, a forward, stiff orientation to you and your dog, pupil dilation, and so on. You should also keep your distance if you meet another dog on the trail and his initial reactions include “freeze and stare,” not settling down within a few seconds or not looking away from you and going back to its owner.

You should also look out for the owner’s body language. Do they get noticeably nervous or stiff? Do they panic to get to their dog? Do they grab their dog’s collar or bring their leash in quickly? These behaviors can help you read the situation and avoid a potentially bad outcome. If you see other dog owners acting this way, get your dog, give them some space, communicate if needed, and help get everyone safely back on track with their hike.

Here are some other things to try if you encounter an uncomfortable situation with another dog:

  • If you have treats, throw them on the ground toward the oncoming dog. Sometimes this will distract them long enough to make an escape.
  • Ask the oncoming dog to “sit” or give another simple command. If they respond, you may get verbal control of the situation.
  • Walk (don't run) the other direction. This makes the interaction much less interesting and less confrontational.


About the Author

Amber Pickren, Gentle Canine

Amber Pickren, BA, CPDT-KA, is the owner of Gentle Canine in Durango, Colorado. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology, Amber found her passion working with dogs and has never looked back. With a specialty in behavioral issues, she has been training dogs since 2004 and easily handled over 10,000 dogs in the span of her career. Amber and her husband Matt share their life with dogs Lilly, Imogene, and cat Dyno. They love getting out into the mountains and enjoy rock climbing, trail running and hiking with their four-legged adventure buddies.

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Amber Pickren, Gentle Canine