This is a guest post written by an expert in adventure travel with dogs, Jen from Long Haul Trekkers. Scroll to the bottom of the article to read more about her.
Thirteen miles into a 15-mile training run, my dog, Sora and I came upon a group of senior bird watchers stopped on the trail, peering among the trees in search of a bird. Two of them had small dogs along for the walk and Sora headed right for the first, a poodle. She snarled, lunged and snapped at it. All of the senior birders reacted in horror as Sora made her way to the second dog to do the same.
I felt beyond embarrassed and also exhausted from the run. I couldn’t react quickly enough to grab her before going up to the second dog and repeating the act all over again. The dogs were fine, and I apologized profusely. As soon as we passed the final birder, I secured her leash and never again ran or hiked with her off-leash.
That experience finally taught me what we had always known, but avoided admitting: Sora is not good off-leash dog.
My partner, Dave and I so badly wanted Sora to be the dog we could take to the park and let run around with the other dogs. I thought I had found the perfect trail running companion who would come when called every single time and not become distracted by other people or dogs on the trail. We wanted her to be the dog who could roam free on the Oregon Coast and not go after the other dogs.
We worked on her recall training every chance we got, but she still always seemed to pick a fight on the trail. We felt embarrassed, bad for the other dog and its owner, and like we had failed Sora. It took us awhile before we finally came to terms with the fact that she never would be good off-leash, no matter the amount of exposure, training, or desire we had for her.
We equated Sora not doing well off-leash to “she’s a mean dog.” But she’s not. She’s a rescued herder with an instinct to chase and push other animals around. It doesn’t mean she’s a mean dog. She just is who she is.
Seeing Things from the Other Side
Now that we have a full-time on-leash dog, I know what I put others through when they saw a strange dog coming at them, interrupting their outdoor activity. It made them feel stressed, scared, and frustrated. I know because this is how I feel when someone allows their off-leash dog approach us.
I know as well as anyone the vision of having a perfect dog who can run around off –leash during hikes and runs, but the fact is that your actions put others at risk and it disturbs their peace.
Encountering off-leash dogs on the trail is a regular occurrence for us, and we rely on a few tactics to help avoid the inevitable unwarranted meetings. You never know how a dog is going to react, so you can only control how you respond.
What to Do When You Run Into an Off-leash Dog On the Trail
We can never expect a dog owner to know the proper etiquette when it comes to dogs, nor should we assume that their dog is trained. The best approach in a situation when an off-leash dog approaches yours is to focus your attention on controlling your own dog and remain calm.
Below, are my 7 tips for handling off-leash dogs while hiking.
Because Sora can be reactive with other dogs, we are always keeping an eye out for loose pups on the trails. We watch if the dog is running up to other dogs or sticking close to his human. Does the owner have a leash at the ready to control him if necessary? Is the dog coming immediately when called or is he ignoring the command, completely dialed in to your dog? Factor in all of these visuals as you size up the situation.
2) Read and Observe
Learning to read dog body language is key in handling situations with off-leash dogs. A stiff body signifies discomfort or dominance. Slow approach with a rigid body, growling, and shifty eyes can mean the dog may attack.
A raised tail can have mixed meanings, depending on other body language accompanying that tail. After initially meeting, a raised tail for a dog to smell a behind is a “nice to meet you!” and wagging tails can mean “What’s up? I’m interested…” Raised hackles can signify that the dog is on guard. Knowing your dog well and dog behavior in general will save you from any potentially dangerous situations.
3) Body Block and Wait
Any time we cross paths with a dog, whether on or off leash, I move Sora to the opposite side of my body from where the dog is, allowing my body to act as a blocker between the two.
If I can, I also find a spot on the side of the trail where I wait with Sora, still blocking her with my body, until the dog has passed.
If I spot a dog sprinting toward us, I block Sora and hold out my hand in a STOP motion and shout “eht!” to try to stop it from advancing. It doesn’t always work, if the dog is set on a mission, but it does often startle him and breaks his focus.
It also alerts the owner that I don’t want their dog approaching and serves as a signal to initiate recall or to come and get their dog.
5) Remain Calm
If the dog approaches regardless of you acting on the above steps, remain calm. Dogs can feel your nervous energy through a taut leash or your body posture.
Because Sora tends to dominate, we have had to learn how to best introduce her to dogs. This has taken a lot of practice, understanding of her, and trial and error. We always let the other dog approach first, take a sniff of her bum, and pet her chin in the meanwhile, praising her for accepting the new dog. We use a Gentle Leader, which allows us to better control her face, never allowing her to meet a new dog face to face.
6) Act Big
If the approaching dog appears aggressive, and is still coming toward you despite trying to stop him with hand signals and authoritative voice commands, act big. Spread your legs and raise your arms like you’re mid jumping jack and say “NO!”
The goal is to show the dog that you are in charge and you are not giving him permission to approach. Do not look him in the eye, as that is seen as a threat to dogs. Sometimes, I even growl to speak dog language to let the dog know that he’s invading my space.
7) Call the Owner
When a dog won’t back off— whether friendly or not, I call to the owner and ask them directly, yet politely, to please get their dog and to keep their him on leash.
It isn’t fair to others to allow your off-leash dog to interrupt their activity and it’s rude to do so without first asking. Not only will keeping your dog under control create more peaceful encounters on the trail, it will also avoid unnecessary stress and potential altercations between dogs.
I’ve learned from my experiences with Sora that the one and only place where all dog owners agree to gather in a setting where dogs may roam free are off-leash dog parks. Unless your pup has impeccable recall or he stays behind you while you hike, please keep your dog on leash.
What do you do when you encounter off-leash dogs on the trail?
You might also like: 8 Tips To Hike Off-Leash With Your Dog (And Not Have People Hate You)
About Long Haul Trekkers: From 2015-2017, Jen has traveled the world by bicycle along with her partner, Dave and their dog, Sora, an Australian Shepherd who convinced her humans that exploring the world is much better than life behind a desk. When she’s not cycling, you can find her running long distances in the woods or hiking in the mountains. To read the stories and see the photos from her adventures, follow her on Facebook or Instagram.