The best recipe for enjoyable dog hikes

Posted by on Feb 22, 2016 in Hiking Tips | No Comments
The best recipe for enjoyable dog hikes

For outdoor enthusiasts and dog lovers alike, there is no better recreational sport than hiking. Call it backpacking, camping, thru-hiking, day hiking… it all ties back to two simple things: We love being in the great outdoors, and we love sharing it with our dogs.
I wrote this 3-part blog series with help and input from friends and peers in dog training and behavior as a hopefully useful guide to hiking with dogs. I believe the absolute recipe to create, enjoy and ultimately keep dog-friendly hikes and trails relies upon two main ingredients: a responsible dog owner/guardian and a dog with a set of rock-solid trail manners.

In this series, we will explore trail manners for dogs and folks in three parts:

  1. The Why: reasons why teaching your dog important skills and knowing canine body language is the key to making the most out of your hikes.
  2. The When: exploring a variety of scenarios you may encounter on the trail and how to work (and play) through them. Coming Soon
  3. The How: my favorite part, along with a few friends, we will show you tips, tricks and games to teach your dog trail manners and skills. Coming Soon

This is Part 1 (The Why).
Follow the trail here:

part 1 The Why   |  (coming soon) part 2 The When   |   (coming soon) part 3 The How

A sprinkle of empathy: Why teach your dog skills for the trail

There is no greater joy than breathing in the wild and seeing our dogs relish in that scent. And wherever possible, as poet Mary Oliver says in one of her Dog Songs poems:

… of all the sights I love in this world–
and there are plenty–very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes.

There are two sides to every leash

There are always at least two camps in topics that hold great passion such as this. Anti-off leash and Pro-Off Leash, and those of us who have a foot in each camp… Like myself.
While there is nothing I love more than to see my dog free and having fun, I will NOT do so at the expense of wildlife, other dogs or other people. It is a respect for the land and for the space of others. I offer that respect in hopes it will be reciprocated.

Not all dogs (or folks) want to greet each other and socialize, and in the same camp, not all dogs want to greet new people and vice versa (get familiar with DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space). Rather than singling my dog out and tying an albeit well-intentioned color ribbon on her however, I believe ALL dogs and ALL people (and all wildlife) deserve respect of their personal space.

I leash up where required and I obey the law, hoping to set an example for others, because the ultimate goal for me is to be allowed responsible access to more places with my dog. Said dog, Willow, is not a suitable candidate for common off-leash friendly areas like dog parks; she is an introverted dog who really likes other dogs but is not a huge fan of meeting and being approached by people she doesn’t know. We enjoy our neighborhood walks, but we look to our hikes as a chance to decompress; to just enjoy being a dog.


More often than not, we forget that in the U.S. at least, having our dogs off leash in public areas is a privilege, and one we need to protect and uphold by respecting rules and being responsible for the safety of our own dogs, that of other dogs and people as well as protection of and from local wildlife. These wild places we love will not thrive without the careful balance of wildlife residents in each ecosystem.

I for one, am happy to leash up, especially if that means I get to share this place with my dog, rather than not being allowed in at all. Sadly, the mistakes and irresponsible actions of a few can cause great trouble for everyone, often resulting in bans and controversial battles like the one here in the Bay Area over GGNRA.

The only solution I see to many of these battles and disagreements and the two main ingredients for a hike that is enjoyable and friendly to all are really simple in theory: A responsible dog owner/guardian and a dog with a set of rock-solid trail manners.

My Canine Behavior mentor Trish King (a dog hiker herself) recently shared some advice in her newsletter on essential trail manners for dogs, which she has kindly allowed me to share with you in parts 1, 2 and 3 of this post. I will also give you some of my own insights (Nat Notes) as well as a few interjections Willow wanted me to pass along (Willow Notes) 🙂 all this, along with games and techniques I have learned from my network of amazing dog professionals.

Investing time in learning and teaching these skills to your dogs will not only make your hikes a lot safer and more enjoyable, but it will surely deepen your bond with your dogs on and off the trails. Ready to get started?


Off Leash Pros and Cons

“Walking your dog off-leash can demonstrate the wonderful relationship many people have with their dogs – the dog investigates his world, and always returns to his human, because you are family. You belong together.” –Trish King
Off-leash walking has plenty of advantages, increased exercise and mental stimulation for humans and canines alike being one of the main ones, of course. But Trish and many other dog pros agree, from a behavioral standpoint, off-leash walking is also beneficial, since leashes can “often exacerbate or even create poor behavior.”
However, there is one major point to make clear: being off-leash shouldn’t necessarily translate into complete freedom – our dogs should be courteous to oncoming people, dogs, and other animals.

Dogs chasing wildlife is a BIG, FAT, No… NO. —Why? Because when you are out in the wild, you are a guest. The wildlife that calls that area home not only lives there, but they eat, breed, nest and keep the delicate ecosystem in balance. Even though your dog may have a blast chasing those birds off the seashore, even if you are not a fan of birds, it causes unnecessary stress and depletes an animal of precious energy and calories for survival (especially at times when food is scarce and calorie intake is low). At worst, it can cause life-threatening stress and even death.


When dogs meet Off-Leash

“In a perfect world, off-leash dogs and their owners would cheerfully acknowledge each others’ presence and walk on. But that state of affairs doesn’t always happen, and it’s our job to know our own dog(s) and be prepared to help.” –Trish King

Polite greetings between dogs, as Trish describes, tend to be a civilized process and “about as interesting as watching grass grow” (one of my favorite quotes from her classes). They may trot slowly towards each other, pause to investigate, sniff and walk on. Sniffing is information, and a very important thing to dogs.

air_scenting_365doghikesWillow Note: “Air-scenting is my favorite, especially when I am feeling unsure about the person that just walked by, I can catch their information lingering in the air without the pressure of having to actually get close to sniff them… Plus, I have been told I look gorgeous and graceful doing it 😉 .”

By contrast, less polite or “adolescent” dog greetings often involve young, exuberant dogs pausing at the sight of other dogs, then rushing towards them–not to mention obnoxious and rather invasive sniffing, even to the extent of pushing/poking/mounting another dog. All these behaviors are extremely rude, (imagine meeting someone for the first time and having them grab your hair, or heaven forbid, reach around and poke your butt!) often causing a dog to snap at the other to back off. This can not only cause tension between the dogs, but can cause people to be rude to each other as well. Not nice for anyone involved!

Add fear and anxiety to a dog-dog greeting, and you’ll often find them to be noisy, as Trish notes. Dogs that are fearful may bark at or even charge at the other dog to try and make it go away or intimidate them (an active defense reflex). Others may hide behind their owners, make a huge arc of avoidance suddenly very interested in sniffing the bushes, or turn and run away (inadvertently encouraging another dog to give chase). A fearful dog may also give a low growl as a warning, while an anxious dog may sit or flip over onto her back wanting to avoid any possible confusion.

Offensively confrontational dogs (as Trish writes on) – are on the pushy side of the spectrum and seem to want to challenge all other dogs.  Their greetings tend to be tense and pretty frontal – purposeful trot, ears and eyes forward, tail held high. Depending on the other dog’s behavior, this can end well or badly.”
Eye-stalk, dropping to the ground is a behavior we often see in dogs (like our lovely herding breeds), but needless to say, unless this happens between two dogs that know and like each other, chances are the other dog does not fancy to consider himself prey or cattle to be herded, and will likely find this “greeting” less than polite.

General Trail Etiquette

Having a well-adjusted, social and friendly dog is a wonderful treat! This however, should not mean it’s ok to leave all social interactions up to her or believe she will solve any potential issues with her cheerful disposition. As Trish puts it, it takes two to make friends, only one to make an enemy.” 
Below, I share a few If scenarios and a recommendation from Trish in each case:

  • IF you see a person/dog team approaching and their dog is off leash, it’s often best to leave your reliable dog off leash.  
  • IF their dog is on leash, it’s generally best to leash your own dog.  
  • IF you’re not sure about your dog’s manners, rather than just hoping things work out, put a leash on her.

Nat Note: Regardless of the scenario however, I strongly advise you to always err on the side of caution. You may well make friends and have a play date there and then, or you will be grateful you listened to your gut.


One of the best investments you can make for your relationship with your dog is the ability to communicate with her by learning to read her body language. If you get anything out of reading this series, let it be this. To learn more about what your dog is trying to tell you, save THIS LINK for later reading.

Stay tuned for part TWO to read about common scenarios you may find on the trail and how to work through them.
Want to know more about Trish King? Make sure you stop by her website and sign up for her newsletter. It is often filled with great dog behavior photos and wonderful, detailed advice on all things dog-behavior related.

This this post may be useful for others? Spread the word, have fun, be kind and hike safe!

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