UPDATED: January 1, 2021
Search the internet and you will find that dogs on hiking trails is a topic that is hotly contested. There are very passionate voices on either side.
Most of this controversy boils down to complaints about dogs and dog owners – both from doglegs hikers that don’t want to be bothered by hiking dogs and people with dogs that complain about the bad behavior of other dogs on the trail or their people.
I am of the belief, obviously, that it is ok for dogs to be out on the trails. However, bringing your dog along comes with great responsibility to both people and the environment.
I admit, I did some things that weren’t cool when I first started hiking with my dog.
I’ve also been a witness to a lot of uncool behavior by others.
When A Happy Hiking Moment Goes Bad
A couple of weeks ago I was hiking with some friends. We got really lucky and got to enjoy a very popular lookout by ourselves for a while.
My friend spent all morning making a delicious sandwich and she was really looking forward to it. She was eating one half with the other on her lap when, out of nowhere, a lone dog came running out of the woods.
It ran around for a second, sticking his nose in our faces to see what we were eating, and then honed in on my friends sandwich.
As she was frantically trying to protect her food, the dog snatched it from her and ran off.
The dog’s owner was nowhere to be seen so I yelled out “Please come get your dog, its eating our food.”
The man came out of the woods and grabbed his dog. He dragged it away by its collar, shaking it and yelling at it for being a bad dog.
I felt bad. The dog was just doing what dogs do. It was the owner who was complacent or, dare I say being irresponsible.
My friend was very upset by what happened – both to her sandwich and to the dog – that she couldn’t get it off her mind.
I was upset that, even though leashes are legally required on the trail, the owner chose to not leash his dog or even keep it in his sight! And it was the dog who suffered for it.
The incident definitely put a damper on our hiking fun.
9 Rules of Good Etiquette When Hiking With Your Dog
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of dogs, dog behavior, and human behavior on the trail.
I compiled a list of big don’ts when hiking with your dog based on my 15+ year of experience and observation.
I am sharing this because I don’t want you to be “that guy” that ruins someone’s hike.
Worse, I don’t want you to unknowingly do something that gives all dog owners a bad name in someone’s eyes.
These are some of the ways you can ensure you are being responsible and respectful dog owner when on the trail:
1) Make sure dogs are allowed on the trail
Research the trail before you go and if it says “No Dogs Allowed” leave your dog at home, don’t go, or make arrangements for someone to watch your dog while you are hiking.
Rules regarding dogs on trail vary from State to State and from land use to land use s don’t make assumptions.
For example, dogs generally aren’t allowed on trails in National Parks but are generally allowed on Forest Service trails.
Even on Forest Service land there are areas, like the Enchantments in Washington State, where your dog is not allowed though.
For a good summary of requirements on Washington trails see the Washington Trails Association Website.
2) Follow the leash rules
Leash laws vary depending on the trail and what entity manages the land.
Some places require the use of a 6 foot, non-retractable leash at all times and others are ok with using only strict voice control (aka. a verbal leash).
There are some areas where strict voice control (where the dog comes instantly on command every single time) alone is ok.
Be sure to find out what the rules are in your state and on your trail before you go and be sure to always follow them. Besides it being the law, it is the courteous thing to do.
For more on why you should leash your dog, read this great article from Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle.
Note: If you are going to hike with your dog off leash on a trail where leashes are required by law, please be aware that users of the trail expect that all dogs that they encounter will be restrained. Please be respectful and leash your dog or hold their collar when you see other hikers coming.
If you want to find trails where your dog can legally hike off leash, check out my article How to Find Off Leash Dog Trails.
Note: It’s written specifically for Washington state but the information is generally applicable to most western states.
3) Scoop the poop
I know…it feels like poop from animals in the woods is natural. Poop from dogs is not natural though.
At least in the frequency and volume created in one area by hundreds of dogs hiking the same trail day after day.
No one wants to step in poo left on the trail either.
The bottom line is bag it and carry it out (double bag it, or place it in a smell-proof, sealable bag, to reduce the smell if you need to).
PLEASE do not stash that bag on the side of the trail unless you are vigilant about picking it up on the way back down. I see WAY too many sad, abandoned bags of poop on the side of the trail.
It’s way to easy, when you are tired from your hike or distracted by a great conversation, to walk right past the poop bags you intended to keep up.
If you must stash the poop bags of the side of the trail, using brightly colored bags can help you find the bag in the bushes.
4) Yield to other trail users
I’m of the mindset that it’s the most courteous for me, with the dog, to always step aside to let others pass no matter who technically has the right of way.
However, there are actual rules about who should yield to whom.
The people hiking uphill have the right of way.
When encountering other hikers, the people hiking downhill should step aside so the the people hiking uphill can pass.
An exception to this rule is if the uphill hikers, welcoming the break, step aside and wave you on.
There may also be times where it’s too dangerous for the uphill person to step aside. In this case, it’s ok to shout down the trail to ask the uphill hikers to step aside for you.
Note: be sure to let them know why because of they don’t understand they may just think you are being rude).
Horses and livestock
Hikers should always yield the right-of-way to horses and other livestock.
Make sure your dog stays calm, refrains from barking, and doesn’t move toward the horse.
If possible, move to the downhill side of the trail (so you don’t look big) and hold your dog close until the horse is well past.
If there is space to step way off the trail without damaging vegetation, it’s ok to do so. However, keep talking to your friend or your dog so that the horses don’t think you are a predator lurking in the bushes.
People riding bikes
Technically, bikers are required to yield to hikers.
However, they are going faster than you so they might not see you until they are almost on top of you.
They should stop and let you pass if they see you in time but that is usually not the case.
It’s just best to step aside of you see a biker coming.
It’s a courteous thing to do too because it takes more work for them to get off and on the bike than it does for you to step aside for a second.
Don’t let your dog bark or lunge at other dogs, people, or animals
Don’t let your dog bark or lunge at other dogs and hikers no matter what size dog you have.
Just because you have a small dog does not mean that other trail users find this behavior “cute”. Many perceive it as aggressive, which can scare them or their dog.
It’s just poor manners.
Along those same lines, don’t let your dog repetitively bark and interrupt other trails user’s peaceful experience.
5) Don’t let you dog run up and sniff people or other dogs
Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t need to say hi to every dog that crosses their path.
First, a trail is not a dog park. It shouldn’t be a place you take your dog to socialize them.
Your dog should be properly socialized, understand how to ignore other dogs if asked, and how to greet other dogs respectfully and in an unthreatening way, before you hit the trail.
Second, all dogs have a right to use the trail.
Some dogs are anxious when approached by strange dogs and people, either because they were born that way or because they’ve had bad experiences in life.
This is NOT a reflection of the quality of the dog, the dog owner, or how much training the dog has.
Dogs are not predictable. They may be our best couch snuggle buddies but they are still animals with a different communication style than people.
Even normally well-behaved and friendly dogs can feel threatened when a strange dog comes running up to them in a confined space (which a narrow trail is).
A dog may be “friendly” 99% of the time but all it can take is one wrong look, a snarl, or a strange smell to set them off, resulting in a negative experience for both dogs (and probably you too).
Thirdly, as hard as it may be to fathom, not everyone is a dog lover. Some people are allergic, are just not dog people, or are afraid of dogs.
To be safe, don’t let your dog go up and sniff or “say hi” to other hikers without permission.
If the person loves dogs and is ok with your dog approaching them they will make it known.
Or if they look like they want approach you and your dog, ask them to confirm.
Otherwise, assume they would like you and your dog to pass by without interacting with them.
6) Don’t let your dog be a food bandit
If you’re hiking with your dog, whether it be on or off leash, and you come up on what looks like a snack or lunch area, which is usually a lookout on the trail or summit, be sure to keep them very close to your side.
Don’t let your dog beg for food from other hikers at lunch/snack stops, stare at them while they are eating, or try to get inside their backpack.
Every dog will be curious when they hear crinkling or smell food but do your best to redirect your dog or keep their eyes on you.
7) Help protect the environment
Hikers and dogs should stick to the trails and practice leaving a minimum impact on nature.
The standard in trail etiquette to protect the environment was developed by the Center for Leave No Trace.
They created seven Leave No Trace Principles that provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.
I have a degree in the water sciences, and worked in the environmental protection field for 20 years, so I took the liberty of adapting these seven principles for dogs.
8) Help protect wildlife
Whether your dog is on a leash or under strict voice control, do not let them wander off the trail to sniff or chase wildlife.
Don’t let them bark at, dig after, or otherwise harass wildlife either.
If your dog is barking it can traumatized critters and, in the case of large animals, they may think your doggie is asking to be eaten.
9) Teach your dog basic training commands for the trail
Besides basic obedience commands like sit and stay, here are some commands that are useful for your dog to know:
- Leave it – This is useful when you want your dog to ignore another dog, another person, wildlife, or something they shouldn’t eat on the ground
- “Here” or “place” – a command used to get your dog to sit or lie down in a specific spot until you say it’s ok to continue on
- Look at me (or simply “look) – An easy way to get your dog to focus on you instead of something they shouldn’t (it’s also handy for capturing that awesome Instagram photo)
- How to walk on a leash without pulling – Pulling can be hazardous for your dog’s health and the over-excitement can put other dogs on edge
Following these 9 etiquette rules are pretty easy.
In fact, several of them are closely related which makes them easy to remember.
By respecting nature, the environment and other trail users we can ensure that dogs will remain welcome on trails for years to come.
It only takes one or two to make a bad name for everyone else.