Trail Etiquette For Hiking With Dogs


Emily Post probably did not have hiking with dogs in mind when she penned her celebrated rules of etiquette. But consider this: you’re responsible for your dog’s behavior when you hike with him, just as you are for your own behavior, for the trails themselves, and for how your actions affect other trail users. This means you’re accountable for the safety of other hikers, horses and their riders, and cyclists, during every trail encounter with your dog. You’re also responsible for his impact on trail vegetation and wildlife.

What’s more, your dog is an ambassador for all dogs every time you hike with him. Episodes of bad dog etiquette on hiking trails increase the likelihood of trail restrictions for dogs. Most trail incidents occur because of uninformed dog owners: a dog merely does what he is trained to do, or not. And dog haters are only too glad to complain loudly. Don’t give them anything to complain about: the better behaved our dogs on the trail, the more they’ll be welcome to hike with us. Follow these five simple rules of dog hiking etiquette to help your dog showcase his best manners on the trail.

1. Choose A Dog-Friendly Hiking Trail

Know before you go. It may seem obvious, but we’ll say it anyway: abide by the rules. Find out if your canine hiking companion is welcome in the first place. Research the best places to take your dog hiking, and go online or call the ranger station associated with your hiking destination to find out if dogs are allowed on the trails there. Dogs are not allowed in most national parks except in designated areas, but are welcome in national forests. Check ahead to avoid disappointment. And never attempt to bring a dog on a trail that is clearly marked off-limits to dogs.

2. Abide By The Leash Law

Know the leash law for the trail you plan to hike, and honor it. Your dog must demonstrate excellent leash skills and exceptional recall. And choose the right kind of dog leash —some trails require a non-retractable lead, six or fewer feet in length, and some terrain may lend itself better to a longer leash vs a shorter leash. Your trail-worthy dog must be the model of exceptional dog obedience on his leash:

  • A trail-worthy dog should be able to hike easily with a loose lead.
  • A trail-worthy dog should be able to hike at a true heel, at or slightly behind your knee.
  • A leash-yanking dog is not a trail-worthy dog: train him at home before you hike.

Blight Of Every Hiker: The Retractable Dog Leash

You’ve seen him coming—the dog at the end of an almost-invisible tether, nose to the ground, weaving back and forth across the trail at his own discretion ahead of his human. A dog on an expandable leash is out of control, a nuisance to oncoming hikers and dogs, and even the leash itself is a potential hazard. Add to this an inattentive human at the other end who realizes too late there is a situation brewing with another dog or hiker ahead, and there is potential for big trouble. This is why the non-retractable lead is imperative for hiking, and why so many trails and parks insist on it. Be considerate and play it safe: choose a conventional, non-retractable dog leash when you hike with your dog.

If your dog will hike off leash (assuming it’s sanctioned), he should always stay within sight and within earshot of you, and demonstrate excellent voice recall. This means

  1. He heels immediately on request, continues to heel, and refrains from barking, and
  2. He demonstrates exceptional competence with these commands:
  • No!
  • Sit!
  • Stay!
  • Come!
  • Off!
  • Leave it!

When you must repeat a command, it is no longer a command, but a request. Your dog must be able to ignore chipmunks and instead listen to and obey you—a tall order for most. But his prompt obedience could mean the difference between life and death; imagine a scenario where your dog is about to encounter dangerous wildlife and refuses to comply with your wishes.

Quick Tip: Asking your dog to wear a pack or reflective vest on the trail often puts other hikers at ease. Even non-dog owners find the sight of a pack-carrying trail dog endearing.

An off-leash hiking dog must be well socialized to other dogs and humans alike. He should be able to pass in close proximity with other hikers and their dogs on narrow trails without incident. But always keep a leash ready, even if your dog hikes without it—there will be times when it’s indispensable:

  • When you encounter another loose dog, leashing your own dog will give you better control of the situation.
  • Be advised your “friendly” unleashed dog can cause a problem during an encounter with a leashed dog, who may be fear-aggressive or undergoing obedience training—it’s best to leash your dog before you pass by, and only allow a quick sniff if the other dog’s person says it’s okay.
  • If you anticipate heavy trail traffic, keep your dog leashed; this practice is as much for his own protection as it is for other hikers and their dogs.

3. Yield Trail Right-Of-Way To All Others When You Hike With Your Dog

Simply put, this means get your dog out of the way—beyond the “sniffing” range—of other hikers, horses, and cyclists. If your dog is off-leash, immediately leash him when you see them coming, step aside, and place him in a sit-stay on the other side of you until the other hikers or riders have passed. Choose a wide section of trail if possible, and if your dog is small enough, pick him up instead of allowing him to trample the underbrush.

Quick Tip: If your dog is aggressive, very protective of you, or otherwise likely to bark and disturb the very peace other hikers are there to enjoy, he is unfit for hiking and should stay home. This is an absolute—there is no gray area.

Be advised many dogs enjoy giving chase to cyclists—even obedient dogs. Let yours know without fail he won’t be chasing them—reel him in and leash him when you see them coming. Oncoming bikers are required to yield to hikers, but often don’t see them until it’s too late. It’s best to be proactive and get out of the way to avoid an accident.

Exercise due diligence in dog encounters with horses; the average horse weighs around 1,200 pounds—an irritating dog stands no chance with an animal this size. And horses can be spooked easily by unfamiliar dogs. You and your dog are obliged to get well out of the way; your dog must stay calm, quiet, and firmly under control. Move to the downhill side of the trail if possible, but if you must move uphill, try to crouch down low so you’re not towering over the horses. Stay visible and speak in a normal tone of voice to the riders as they pass by to help keep the horses calm. Keep your dog close by your side until the horses have gone well past you.

Tips For Managing Trail Encounters With Other Dogs

  • Never allow your dog to lunge at other hikers and dogs, and always make sure a greeting is okay with the other dog’s person; allow a quick, friendly sniff, but then be on your way and ignore the other dog.
  • A dog’s “flight” distance is seven feet. In the wild, dogs approach one another in a curved path and sniff rumps. Dogs can perceive head-on meetings as intimidating and even threatening; it’s best to allow them to meet in this more natural posture.
  • In the event of a bite: Exchange your dog’s vaccination records with the other hikers. People bitten by dogs with an unknown vaccination history must undergo a series of injections afterwards to avoid the potential of rabies. And if your dog is bitten by that dog, he’ll need a rabies booster even if he is current.

4. Tread Gently On The Trail With Your Dog

Leave plants and wildlife undisturbed. Stick to the trail with your hiking dog to minimize his environmental impact: resist the urge to cut across trail switchbacks, otherwise take shortcuts, or blaze “new” trails, however tempting. If your final destination lies off-trail, make the most direct path to it in a line that is perpendicular to the trail. When you’re hiking above the tree line, walk on rock as much as possible.

Do not disturb wildlife, even if you want photos but can’t get close enough. Allowing your dog to bark at wildlife on the trail can provoke an attack. And allowing your dog to chase wildlife can be deadly for your dog, and potentially yourself and other hikers.

The best rule of thumb: leave all plant and animal life exactly as you found it for others behind you to enjoy.

5. Pack Out The Doggy Doo

It’s a malodorous subject we can’t sidestep: you are responsible for cleaning up your dog’s waste—nobody coming along after you wants to land in it. And while your individual dog’s poop may not seem like a big deal to you, a busy trail can see stinky droppings from hundreds of dogs over the course of a single day.

Leave No Trace (LNT) principles apply to you and your dog; his waste contains pathogens that end up in rivers and lakes and can contaminate drinking water. The best practice is to bag his poop and carry it out (the only option in high, mountainous terrain), or bury it in a hole six to eight inches deep and 200 feet from water sources, depending on the trail rules where you’re hiking.

If you find the odor too unpleasant to bear, try these strategies:

  • Give your dog time to do his business at the trailhead, where you can dispose of it in a trash receptacle before you hike.
  • Double bag it: put it in a zipper freezer bag first, and then put that inside another plastic bag. Strap it to the outside of your pack and carry it out.
  • If you must, and if you will absolutely remember, stash it off to the side of the trail and pick it up on your way back. But be advised leaving a bag of poo on the trail is worse than not picking it up at all, because now there is also a plastic bag that will not break down for a very long time, if ever. Put it in a brightly colored bag you’re likely to spot, or tie a small piece of flagging tape to the bag.

Leave Only Paw Prints On The Trail, Take Only Pictures.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, an excellent rule of thumb when you hike with your dog. Many a dog loves hiking with his human companion because of the closeness, to say nothing of the exotic smells he takes in over the course of the hike; by all means indulge in this enriching outdoor activity with your dog. But honor the posted dog rules and regulations when you hike with him—they’re meant to protect the trails so they can be enjoyed forever, and to keep everybody safe. Let common sense and common courtesy define your dog’s etiquette on the trail: set an example with your polite and seasoned canine hiking companion.

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