One of my favourite activities to do with our dog Baxter is off-leash hiking.
It took us awhile to work up to being off-leash (see the story here), but now we’re regulars on the trails.
Beyond the initial training we went through, there are a few lessons I’ve learned to make off-leash hiking more enjoyable.
I also reached out to a few of Baxter’s friends to ask for their suggestions, and I’d love to hear yours as well. Please leave them in the comments.
15 tips for off-leash hiking with your dog
1. ID your dog.
A good collar with tags—city license, her name, your cell and home numbers—is the first step. However, if the collar is lost, make sure your dog can still be connected with you through a microchip or other form of identification.
2. Carry your phone or a satellite phone.
And make sure it’s fully charged. This can protect you as well as your dog. If you and your dog become separated, your cell number on her tag may mean you’re reunited more quickly.
If you’re hiking with other people, share your cell number with them and make sure you have their numbers too.
When out of cell range, consider carrying a satellite phone for emergencies.
3. Bring a leash.
Even though your plan is off-leash hiking with your dog, there may be times when you need a leash (perhaps the trail comes close to a busy road). Trying to walk a dog by hanging onto his collar is not fun. Bring a leash.
4. Leash up when you meet other people or dogs.
You never know how people feel about dogs. You never know how other dogs will react to yours. To prevent potentially uncomfortable situations, leash up when you encounter others on the trail.
5. Pay attention to your dog.
If you’re hiking with a group, it’s easy to get chatting with other people and lose track of your dog. Keep an eye on your dog and know where she is. This will make the experience safer for your dog and more relaxing for you.
6. Acknowledge your dog when he checks in with you.
Even independent dogs like Baxter “check in” every so often. It might be looking back over his shoulder to see where I am or waiting for me to catch up. Other dogs will run back to their owners every so often.
Acknowledging this with a pat or a “hello” strengthens the bond with your dog and aids in better recall.
7. Encourage a strong recall.
If your dog is off leash, you want to be confident that she’ll come when called. Work on recall in calm, controlled situations and slowly increase the distractions until your dog will come to you even on a busy trail with other people, other dogs, cool smells and lots of things to look at.
8. Leash up if you want to.
I already said you should leash up when you meet other people or dogs, but you should also leash up if your dog isn’t behaving the way you want him to. If he’s not coming when called, there should be consequences.
If he’s over-excited and looking for trouble (aka squirrels, deer, Sasquatch… ahem, Baxter), prevent a problem before it starts by clipping him up, even just for a short while until he calms down again.
9. Poop and scoop.
Yeah, it’s not fun carrying a bag of poop as you hike, but a big pile of poop in the middle of a trail is not polite.
If Baxter ventures off trail to do his business in long grass or thick brush—somewhere it’s pretty much guaranteed not to be stepped on—I will not scoop.
In my opinion, this is one of the perks of hiking in the woods rather than walking through the neighbourhood. But usually, the same rules apply in the woods as they do anywhere else. Pick up after your pet.
If water isn’t available on the trail, make sure you carry water for your dog. One woman I hike with totes a small backpack that fits a bottle and collapsible dish.
I use a Gulpy (a combination bottle with built-in dish) that I carry in a waist belt leftover from my marathon training days. In cool weather, a drink at the end of a hike may be enough for your dog.
On hot days, you may need multiple bottles throughout the hike (speaking from experience, trying to cool down an overheated dog when you’re out of water is not a fun experience)
11. Have a towel in your car.
Some dogs like to swim. Some like to roll (potentially in some disgusting things). Some like mud. A quick rub down at the end of a hike can save you a lot of clean up later.
12. Consider dressing your dog in a high visibility coat.
We hike with a Great Dane who is the colour (and size) of a deer. She wears an orange vest on every hike so that she’s not mistaken for a deer. Also, the orange makes it easier to keep an eye on her in the woods (see #5 above).
13. Have a first aid kit in your car.
Being prepared to treat minor injuries when they happen can avoid discomfort for your dog and anxiety for you.
14. Join a group.
Our trainer’s goal was to set us and our dogs up for off leash hiking. When we completed our classes we joined an email list of people interested in hiking regularly.
Every night someone sends an email to the list saying “My dog and I are hiking here at this time tomorrow morning. The address is this.”
Whoever wants can join the hike. Consider connecting with people through your vet, doggie daycare, groomer, trainer, pet store, Facebook group—wherever you kind find like-minded people. The social time is good for both you and your dog.
15. Help others.
Since everyone in my group went through the same training classes, we all have pretty much the same philosophy about dogs. This allows us to share advice and look after each other’s dogs as we need to.
I’ve learned that off-leash hiking is one of the most rewarding things I can do with my dog—for both me and him. I’ve also learned that with just a little bit of thought and preparation, I can make sure it’s a safe, pleasurable experience for both of us.
Thanks to Patti, Jeremy, Geoff, Nancy and Carolyn for sharing their tips.
Please leave them in the comments!
Julia Preston is a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating. She and her husband live on a 129-acre farm in Ontario, Canada.