The Ifs, Whens, & Hows of Responsible Off-Leash Hiking
If you follow a lot of adventurous dog accounts on Instagram or you’re in a dog hiking Facebook group, you’ve probably seen a lot of debate about leashes. How do I get my dog to hike off leash and not run away? Are e-collars a good training tool or am I a terrible person for putting one on my dog? Where is it safe to hike off leash?
Believe me, I get the allure of being able to let your dog run foot loose and fancy free. I have FOUR of them and it’s not always easy to hike with a bunch of leashed dogs. BUT… that doesn’t mean letting your dog run crazy regardless of your surroundings is okay either.
So let’s back up a bit, shall we?
Lets get this straight… Leashes are NOT punishment!
Please don’t think that you need to let your brand new dog run around and be “free” to give them a good quality of life. That is just not true. And honestly, not that safe either. Your dog can (and my dogs do, a lot of the time) get in a great workout and really enjoy hiking with you ON a leash. Until the last year or so, all of my dogs were on leashes ALL of the time. And we hike multiple times a week.
Having a dog that doesn’t have 100% recall or that has to be on a leash doesn’t make you a lesser dog owner. It doesn’t mean your dog is “bad” or “less than” that free-running seemingly badass dog you follow on Instagram.
From personal experience, I can guarantee that your dog would rather be out on a hike with you on a leash than sitting at home in the house, or never be let out ouf their safe, enclosed back yard. My dogs are not miserable or under-exercised or being punished in any way when they hike with me on leashes. They are happy, excited about our adventures, and SAFE.
When is it okay to let your dog off-leash?
At the end of the day, your number one responsibility to your dog is to keep them safe. Before you let your dog off leash, ask yourself the following questions:
Are dogs allowed off-leash on this trail?
A lot of trails and state and national parks have strict leash laws. These are often for the protection of wildlife and habitats in the park, or for the enjoyment of other people who may not want to worry about off-leash dogs approaching them (or their leashed dogs). Sometimes breaking these laws can mean hefty fines.
**I know that not everyone follows leash laws all the time. If I’m deep in the woods and there is not a soul in sight, I’ll let my dogs off leash and let them stretch their legs too. BUT, and this is a big but.. You should NEVER let your dog off leash if their recall is not 100%. Do not let them run up to people or dogs, don’t let them disturb wildlife habitats. Basically, don’t be a jerk, and don’t let your dog be one either. If your dog isn’t under your control at all times, they should be on a physical leash. (see #4)
Are there any physical dangers here that can make off-leash hiking unsafe?
We do a lot of hikes near waterfalls or on mountain tops, which means ledges, cliffs, steep embankments, and fast moving water. You have to know your dog and their abilities. Are they a sure-footed mountain goat that scales rock faces with ease? Are they TOO confident and likely to wander a bit too close to the edge? If your dog doesn’t have 100% recall and won’t take direction to stay close to you (and away from dangers on the trail), a leash is the easiest way to ensure their safety.
Are there a lot of other people and leashed dogs?
If you’re on a highly trafficked trail, there is a high likeliness that you will cross people or dogs who need a little extra space bubble. If the answer to this question is yes, see question 4.
Will your dog come back to you immediately if you see/hear a person and/or dog approaching?
This one is simple. If the answer to this isn’t 100% DEFINITELY YES… DO NOT LET YOUR DOG OFF LEASH.
Even if off leash dogs are allowed, they shouldn’t be a nuisance to other hikers. Believe it or not, not every person likes dogs.. crazy, I know, but it’s true. They should be able to enjoy hiking without being approached by strange dogs and being uncomfortable. I LOVE dogs, like probably more than people, but even so, my heart skips a beat every time I see a dog I don’t know barreling in my direction, especially when there is no owner in sight. Maybe they’re excited to see me.. but maybe they aren’t a super easy going, friendly dog. How are you to know the difference?
Same goes for a lot of dogs who are hiking ON a leash. Even a dog-friendly, happy go lucky dog may be uncomfortable being charged at by a dog they don’t know, friendly or not. They’re on a leash and the approaching dog is not, which puts the leashed dog at a disadvantage from the get go. Take Ringo, for example. He’s a friendly, lovable dog, but he is a bit timid and needs to meet other dogs and people in a slow, safe way for him to be comfortable. If a dog runs up to him, ignoring his owner’s recall, he gets scared and feels cornered, especially when he’s on a leash. Same goes for Off-Leash People.
If your dog is going to ignore you and run up to people or dogs on the trail, put them on a leash. Don’t be that person yelling “He’s friendly!” Frankly, I don’t care, and that’s not cool. Especially if we’re on a leash-only trail. Please respect everyone else who is trying to enjoy their time in nature.
If you have a dog who has reactivity issues when you see other dogs and people on the trail, keep them on a leash and READ THIS.
Are you close to a busy road?
Again, without very reliable recall, this is an obvious danger. Whenever we hike with our dogs off-leash, even with great recall, we leash up before we get close to places where the trail crosses a road, and before we get back to the trailhead and parking lot. Better safe than sorry.
Is there a lot of wildlife running around and will your dog take off after it if they notice?
This is the #1 reason why Boomer has spent most of her years hiking on a leash. She listens great, but she’s still a hound and that nose knows what it wants. And for a long time, when her nose turned on, her ears would turn OFF. If we start to hear a lot of scurrying in the leaves and Boomer starts to get a bit too interested, she goes back on leash. Period. If and when she calms back down or we get to a less “interesting” part of the trail, we’ll try again.
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Basically, it boils down to two things… Is your dog’s recall 100%? and are you paying attention and anticipating possible dangers? Unless both of these are true, leash your dog and enjoy a safe, happy walk together!
Have thoughts to share or experiences with off-leash dogs that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for reading,