7 Ways to Hike With Your Dog Off Leash (And Not Be a Jerk)

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7 Ways to Hike With Your Dog Off Leash (And Not Be a Jerk)

Public trails can sometimes resemble a battlefield.

On one side are the crusaders who cite regulations, biting incidents, dog-on-dog aggression, jumping, food stealing, wildlife harassment, safety, tundra trampling and general annoyance as among the reasons to keep canines on leash or leave them at home altogether. In the other camp are the dog-lovers who roll their eyes as they happily let their twin untrained retrievers Dollop and Mr. Sprinkles chase pikas all the way to the summit.

Obviously, those are the extremes. Most trail users fall somewhere in the middle. Still, how can the dog-fearing mountain biker and Susie’s gaggle of mountaineer pugs coexist?

It’s important to note that while many areas do require a leash, in others owners are only obligated to have voice control. Know the rules and regulations of the area in which you’re hiking. If you’re a dog owner, prioritize the places where off-leash romping is legal. The guidelines included in this article, however, also apply in those areas.

Trails are a public space that attract people from all walks of life. Everyone has the right to spend a day outside free from annoyance and fear, just like I enjoy the ability to hike with my four-legged adventure buddy. As with most raging debates in the outdoor community, the solution doesn’t have to be that hard.

(Hint: Everything can be resolved with mutual respect. In short, don’t be self-centered.)

1. Train, train, train

Put in the effort to raise a well-behaved dog or don’t let him off leash on the trail. It’s that simple. An adventure dog should come when called despite any distractions, stay in sight, heel if necessary, exercise restraint around wildlife or other pups, not jump on people or get underfoot, refrain from begging or stealing food, stay out of the way of mountain bikers and skiers, show no aggression and, yes, walk comfortably on a leash when the situation warrants. Every dog has its quirks, despite any amount of training. It’s the owner’s job to understand, assess and manage those behaviors to avoid a conflict. Be honest with yourself about your pup’s tendencies and make responsible decisions.

If you want to avoid being "that guy/girl" with Dollop and Mr. Sprinkles, check out our dog trainer's post, Trail Etiquette 101: Training Tips for Off-Leash Adventures With Your Dog. And if you encounter "that guy/girl" and their renegade menagerie, read our post on how to handle other off-leash dogs on the trail.

2. Admit your dog is not perfect

You’ve had Grumblebutt since he was an 8-week old puppy. You’ve spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on training. He’s under tight voice control. He doesn’t jump or chase animals. He can solve basic math problems, walk your cats, cook instant noodles, set up a tent and bag his own poop.

Guess what? He still does something that will make someone else out there uncomfortable. Don’t fall into the all-too-common mindset that your pup can do no wrong. Always be willing to admit that something Grumblebutt does can be annoying to another hiker, and act accordingly to control your dog. He shouldn't be allowed to approach anyone without their consent.

As a more serious scenario, it’s possible that a fellow trail user is afraid of dogs as a result of a previous attack. Grumblebutt might fart rainbows and occasionally sprout angel wings, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a living nightmare to a stranger. You love your dog and everything about him. Not everyone else does. Practice some empathy.

3. Exercise common sense

Are you and off-leash Capt. Cuddles approaching an on-leash dog with his hackles up and a straight tail? How about a family with a small child that acts fearful and hides behind her mother’s legs? A skittish horse? A herd of mountain goats? Call your dog to your side, put her on a leash and give a wide berth. Once you’re clear, Capt. Cuddles can happily go back to running 15 feet ahead of you and eating marmot poop while giving you side-eye.

If you’re on a trail that’s crowded enough that this is happening every 30 seconds, perhaps it's best to just keep the dog on-leash. It’ll be less taxing for everyone involved, including the poor, confused pup.

4. Keep the leash handy

Consider using a dog pack that includes a harness attachment. It’s easy enough to keep a leash clipped on and shoved into the pack’s top pocket, where it’s out of the way but easy to grab. That way, when you encounter scenarios like those just mentioned, there’s no time wasted in securing the pup. Several companies make products specifically designed for this exact situation, such as Ruffwear’s Quick Draw™ leash that is secured with a hook-and-loop closure around the dog’s neck like a second collar. At the very least, keep a leash in your hand or slung around your shoulder for immediate access.

5. Communicate with other trail users

This applies to both pro- and anti-dog hikers.

“Is your dog friendly?”
“Can you leash your dog while we pass?”
“Is Sgt. Snuggles bothering you?”

Hey, that was almost too easy.

6. Know the truth about dog poop

Dog poop can contain harmful diseases that are transmittable to other animals and even humans. A beloved off-leash hiking park outside of Denver closed in 2017 partly because the volume of orphaned dog poop contaminated a local stream to the point it was toxic. That park would still be open for public enjoyment today if users had better protected the resource by practicing personal responsibility.

You might still be eight miles from the car while Sir Poopsalot just excreted half his body weight, but you should still bag it and pack it out. Many companies make scented products to control odor, and you can always double- or even triple-up on the bags.

There’s also no such thing as a Poop Fairy. No mythical creature is following you around and picking up the stinky neon-colored eyesores you leave on the side of the trail. If you must leave a bag behind for later retrieval, make sure you know exactly where it is and that you actually pick it up. This is another bonus of having your dog wear a pack — they can carry their own crap. Literally.

7. Understand (and mitigate) the risks

Dogs can get seriously injured while hiking, especially in the mountains. Something as “cute” as a marmot or mountain goat can kill even a large dog. Your best friend will try to follow you anywhere, even across a knife-edge ridge or up a steep snow gully. They don’t understand the hazards. They just want to be close to you, the center of their world. They don’t make an active choice to be in these situations; we make that decision for our canine companions. Thus, it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to protect them.

It’s heartbreaking that every year dogs die from heatstroke, falls, animal attacks, or other hiking-related incidents, especially when many such accidents can be avoided. If a dog was trained for instant recall and to refrain from chasing wildlife, for instance, it likely wouldn’t get close enough for a mountain goat to gore it. I’m not saying to leave dogs at home — I bring mine almost everywhere. Anyone who’s seen a happy pup running free in nature knows the rewards can outweigh the risks. Owners simply must put the well-being of their dog above their own ambition and mitigate the dangers.

In general, I don’t bring my pup on anything more difficult than easy scrambles. Every person and dog are different, but that’s my personal comfort level with my border collie. She’s just as happy running 10 miles through a perfectly safe meadow as she is on a precarious and exposed summit. It makes no difference to her as long as she’s free, outside, and by my side. I’m the only one who cares about her peak checklist.

Finally, carry a dog first-aid kit and plenty of extra water, and consider an LED collar or reflective vest for low-light situations. It's important to always know where your dog is, especially if they're off-leash. Like you should be doing for yourself, think about every contingency for your dog and travel prepared.

Now, can’t we all just get along? Dog lovers, dog haters and everyone in between can indeed peacefully coexist, it just takes a little effort and human decency. Happy trails!



About the Author

Jeff Golden

Jeff Golden and his rescued rez dog, Zia, spend most of their off days wandering above treeline in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. Jeff finished climbing all of Colorado’s famed 14ers in 2012 and has continued his alpine love affair alongside his pup, with the pair pursuing 13,000- and 14,000-foot summits nearly every weekend year-round. Their other hobbies include ice climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, cursing marmots, ranting against the Oxford comma, watching the heart-wrenching display that is Carolina Panthers football and experiencing separation anxiety when Jeff’s girlfriend Liz isn’t in sight. The former daily newspaper journalist enjoys sharing his outdoor knowledge as an instructor for the Colorado Mountain Club and on his blog at www.iceandtrail.com. You can follow Jeff's more photogenic half on Instagram at @climbingcollie.

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Jeff Golden