Sometimes a perfect storm of coincidences come together and a column is born.
The pup I adopted last year is almost a year old now. There’s nothing quite like the presence of a pup to point out the deficiencies in the skills of your other dogs, and with four dogs hiking with me on the trail now, each with their own quirks, I think I’ve reached critical canine mass. That, combined with perhaps a little age, perspective and desire to be a truly considerate trail user — plus more people on the trails here these days — has led me to really up my dogs’ trail manners training this summer.
As more food for thought someone shared with me a little piece from Outside Magazine titled “The New Rules of Dog Ownership” that touched on trail etiquette while addressing how to be a considerate dog owner when out in public. And the next day, guess who startled a momma moose and calf standing off the side of the trail? It was a good thing we were prepared.
So what does it take for a dog to be a good trail partner? Let’s start with practices.
Sure, it can be fun to just open your car door at the trailhead and let your dog loose to smell, taste, pee and poop wherever and on whatever, and run to greet every person and dog in sight. But the truth is that not every person — and certainly not every dog — wants to meet your dog. And no one wants your dog to pee on their gear or poop anywhere it’s likely to be stepped on.
Every dog-accompanied trail user should recognize that dogs can be an imposition to both people and other dogs. As such, it’s best to start with an assumption that other trail users — human or canine — don’t want to meet your dog. Do what is necessary to prevent your dog from doing so unless it’s made explicitly clear your dog’s approach is welcome. Presence of another dog is not an unspoken signal to allow your dog to approach.
This is especially true if your dog is inclined to bark at people who approach on the trail. Allowing a dog who may behave this way to forge ahead and out of sight isn’t fair to other trail users. Even if your dog is friendly, a cold, wet nose sniffing up shorts is not for everyone, nor is being swarmed by a couple of excited dogs if you happen to have more than one.
This means, on the trail, keeping your dog in sight. If the trail has blind section, the dog must be close to you to be in sight. If there is an open stretch, sure, let him blaze on ahead, as long as you have a clear fix on him and what lies ahead.
That is assuming, of course, that your dog knows and acts according to the following skills, despite distractions: coming when called and “leave it.” Your dog should quickly respond to you, despite people, other dogs, horses, bikers, moose or whatever else you may encounter on the trail.
Of course there’s more than just those skills that will prove to be handy on trails. A dog that responds to “sit” and “down” from a distance will allow fast-moving users to safely pass. A cue such as “off the trail” can also prove useful. I find “wait,” which asks the dog to be stationary until I catch up, and “behind,” which asks him to walk behind me, are also quite valuable.
As with all skills, you will need to devote time and energy to training your dog to reliably perform them.
What if your dog doesn’t have a reliable recall, which admittedly takes a good amount of effort to teach. In that case he should be managed to prevent failure — which translates to “attached to you in some way.”
What? Leash a dog when hiking?
This may sound blasphemous here in the Tetons, but, believe it or not, leashing dogs on trails is required in many parts of the U.S. And even when it’s not required, yes, you should always have a leash with you no matter how far into the backcountry you may be.
That doesn’t mean you have to hold a leash; it can mean clipping a leash to a pack or belt. A no-pull harness can make such an attachment an enjoyable experience — better yet, teach your dog how to walk nicely on a leash in addition to coming when called.
It may end up being a little less fun than letting your dog run around like a wild thing, but it also means you aren’t imposing on other trail users or wildlife. Dogs are a privilege, not a right. If your dog has reliable skills and you want to let him run wildly, go somewhere no one else goes.
Even if humans are not around, there is always a chance of encountering wildlife — such as a mama moose and her calf. I’m happy to report when I came upon the duo, the dogs were close by and came running when asked. Mama took a long look at our surprised group, seemed to weigh her options, then turned tail and trotted off with her little one.