Although I chose to hike on a weekday afternoon to reduce encountering off leash dogs, I knew we might encounter one or two. Chester and Gretel are what you call “reactive” dogs – an off-leash dog running up to them, especially when they are leashed, scares them.
I rounded the corner and saw two larger dogs, both off leash. Their owner was nowhere in sight. I pulled Chester and Gretel to the side and stood between them and the other dogs. Based on past experience, I knew this was a way to reduce Chester and Gretel’s anxiety while sending a signal to the other dogs, and the owners if they were around, that my dogs needed some space. It was working too – Chester and Gretel stood there calmly.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the two off-leash dogs approaching, owners still nowhere in sight. I crouched down and kind of hunched over Chester and Gretel. As the off-leash dogs approached, I got closer to the ground and formed a little “bubble” over them with my body. Chester and Gretel were still being quiet.
The two approaching dogs were undeterred and were soon trying to stick their muzzles in between my legs and arms to check out Chester and Gretel. Suddenly, Chester and Gretel went nuts. They started barking and lunging a the other dogs trying to tell them to “get away”. Along come the owners and what do they say to me? “You shouldn’t bring your aggressive dogs on hikes.”
The nerve! I was speechless. I mean, I was following the law and had my dogs on-leash. These people apparently had no clue what “aggressive” vs. reactive/defensive dog body language looks like or, at the very least, misunderstood Chester and Gretel’s actions because they did not see their dogs barging in on my dog’s space.
Off Leash vs. On Leash Dogs
Before you think this is turning into an article bashing off-leash dogs, it’s not. I think that dogs off-leash anywhere they are legally allowed is acceptable. I’m also ok with dogs off leash where it is required by law (aka. the owner chooses to ignore it) as long as they are well-trained to respond when their owner calls them back and the owner is willing to leash them temporarily when other dogs and people pass.
Here are some things that were true about our situationthough:
- The other dogs were not leashed. – The trail we were on, and most of the trails we hike, legally require dogs to be on a 6 foot leash. The owners did not leash their dogs.
- The owners were not in sight to call their dogs back. – In some cases, “voice control” is an effective alternative to a leash. However, an owner must be able to see their dog, and the dog must return to their side as soon as they are called the first time, for them to be considered under voice control. The owners let their dogs get out of their sight so they had no control over them.
- We were in a “confined space” – Most people wouldn’t think of a trail as a confined space but it is. A confined space is any place that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit. On most trails, it’s narrow and only has two directions of “escape” – forward or backward – because there may be vegetation or a hill on either side of the trail. This gives a dog no choice but to be in close proximity with a strange dog and the forward “exit” is usually impeded by this other dog.
- The two dogs did not respect our space. – They did not recognize my “go away” signals and forced their way into Chester and Gretel’s space.
- Chester and Gretel are reactive. – They perceived the other dogs as a threat, were fearful, and they started barking in an attempt to make the threat go away. Although their behavior could have been interpreted as aggression, the sole intent was to make the other dogs go away.
I don’t blame the other dogs at all. To me, whether a the dogs were off leash or not is irrelevant. The whole situation could have been avoided if the people had been close enough to see us approaching and called their dogs away. They weren’t.
The truth is – as I’ve learned over the years – some people don’t think that having a dog that gets upset by off-leash dogs coming up to them is their problem. I’ve even heard people say:
- Your dog’s problem is not my problem – that they don’t have to change the way they do things because your dog might get upset.
- If your dog can’t act nice and calm around all dogs, no matter what the situation is, then they don’t belong out in public.
Sadly, most of these people’s minds will never be changed. It’s not that they “just don’t know better”, they just see it as something you need to deal with, not them.
So, as the owner of a reactive dog, what can you do?
How to Manage a Reactive Dog While Hiking
My friend, who has traveled to several other countries with her dog, wrote a great guest post for me – 7 Tips for Handling Off-Leash Dogs While Hiking. In this article, she explains how you can assess a situation to avoid any potential conflict and how to send signals to the other dogs (and their people) to leave you alone. They are super great tips!
However, there is a second part to the equation; What to do with YOUR DOG when you see an off-leash dog approaching.
The first way to be proactive is to choose a trail that doesn’t see a lot of traffic, especially if you know you’re likely to encounter off-leash dogs.
Assuming you have assessed the other dog’s behavior and don’t feel it’s an emergency situation, here are some things to you can do to help manage their attention and behavior:
Do: Remain calm. If you get scared and stressed out, your dog can sense that and is more likely to get riled up.
Do: Step as far off the trail as you can without damaging vegetation and face your dog. Sometimes you may have to backtrack to a wider spot in the trail.
Do: “Body block” by standing between your dog and the off-leash dog to help show them that you have control of the situation and break up their line of sight.
Do: Teach your dog to sit calmly when other dogs appear (or at least stand calmly… Chester and Gretel don’t like setting their tushies on dirt).
Do: Get your dog to focus their attention on you and reward them for calm behavior. Treats and/or a clicker can help with this and training this behavior should begin at home. Do be aware that treats have the potential to make the problem worse (although treat distraction is the method I use and it rarely is) because the approaching dog may smell them and come closer. However, to me, the benefit outweighs the risk.
Do: Call to the other owners to let them know that your dog isn’t friendly around other dogs. There is a chance that the other people may not take that has a hint to keep their dog away or care (again, your problem, not theirs, in practice) but I’ve found that most people will at least attempt to call their dog over to them.
If you tried all of the above and you can tell your dog is getting upset and is likely to “lose it,” you can actively try to shoo the other dog away.
Another trick that works for me is using the “leave it” command and quickly shuffling by, or jogging by, the other dog.
When discussing this issue in the past, some people have mentioned the Yellow Dog Project. It’s a movement created for dogs that need space. By tying a yellow ribbon to a dog’s leash you’re indicating that your dog needs some extra room. While I think it’s a great idea, I don’t think it’s effective. The program has been around for years but just never caught on. Most people don’t know what a yellow ribbon tied to a dog’s leash or collar means. If you like this concept and want to try something similar, I suggest sending a clearer message by purchasing a harness or leash with a printed message on it (affiliate link) like “NO DOGS” or “Nervous.”
Help Your Reactive Dog Before You Go Hiking
Many of the skills you and your dog will need to avoid any issues on the trail are best addressed at home first so you can use them on the trail when you need to.
Things you can do at home:
- Desensitization exercises – The “look at that” game, and the getting closer and closer without reacting, will help your dog be more comfortable when seeing or being near strange dogs. Try a reactive dog class if you need some help.
- Signals Training – Teach your dog a signal that, when you give it, tells them they should focus solely on you… and come to your side. This could be a word like “here” or “side”
- Learn to read dog body language – Both your dog’s and others. We live with our dogs every day so learning their signals, and what sets them off, is sometimes intuitively learned. Those same signs and signals aren’t necessarily the same for all dogs. Take a class that teaches you how to recognize universal dog body language or do some online research.
- Use a natural calming supplement – Although some may disagree with me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving your dog a natural calming product to help them keep their cool. I give Chester and Gretel Hemp CBD Treats and/or Vetriscience Composure Chews (affiliate link) if I think we’ll be in a stressful situation. It doesn’t drug them or make them loopy, or affect their ability to exercise, but it does take the edge off so they can focus on my signals.
The cold, hard truth is that YOU are your dog’s best advocate and it’s your responsibility to keep them happy and safe. It’s nice when other people who hike with their dogs are respectful, but it shouldn’t be assumed that they will be. I don’t go for a hike assuming that they won’t, but I know that their aren’t obligated to behave in a way that makes it easier for my dogs.