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Finding Your Dog’s Comfort Zone (and yours) for Off-Leash Hiking

When I think of the word “comfort zone,” I think usually of physical space. The environment where I’m most comfortable. How close someone can get to me before I feel like they’re in my personal space.

With humans and our dogs, we also have comfort zones.

One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with as I’ve embraced off leash hiking with Baxter is his large comfort zone.

I’ve written before about my independent dog. Some of the dogs we hike with need to have their owner in view at all times or will walk right beside their owner. That is not the case with my dog.

In fact, I’ve come to learn that my dog’s comfort zone is defined not by space, but by time.

Finding your dog's comfort zone

If Baxter dashes into the woods, I check my watch. I know that approximately 10 minutes later, he will reappear beside me. Often it’s less, but I’ve learned that 10 minutes is usually his maximum.

The realization that it’s time not distance that matters most to my dog came from another member of our hike group. He talked about a friend and his husky.

The husky would take off, and the owner came to learn that in 5 minutes, the dog would come back. That was when I started watching my watch. Sure enough, Baxter always came back at almost exactly 10 minutes.

Understanding this part of my dog’s behaviour gave me great reassurance for hiking.

I stopped worrying when he went off trail to enjoy the sniffy woods. I even was able to be calm if we encountered a deer or another animal the dogs felt compelled to chase.

Dog's comfort zone for off-leash hiking

And I stopped tromping through the woods anxiously calling my dog’s name. I didn’t feel the need to pause the hike to stand on the trail and wait for my dog to come back.

For me, it’s important that my dog have the freedom to make his own decisions and choices.

Off-leash hiking allows him to run and sniff and play and, in my opinion, be a dog.

And it’s incredibly rewarding to see the bond I’ve built with my dog when over and over he chooses to come back to me. See my post: How to train your dog to be off leash.

Hiking one Saturday this fall with five other dogs, there were three instances throughout the two-hour walk where I had no idea where my dog was.

Once, he was gone just a couple of minutes, reappearing on the trail in front of us, almost saying, “You know, if you cut through the woods here, you end up back on the trail and save yourself some walking.”

Twice, he came charging up behind us after a merry 10 minutes of choosing his own adventure. One of my hiking mates asked me once if I wanted to stop and wait or go back and look for him. I said, “Nope. He’ll be along shortly.” Sure enough, there he was.

Dog comfortable off leash

I’m not sure how Baxter always finds me. He appears to have some hound in him, so I’m sure he can sniff out our trail. Plus we’re a chatty, barky bunch, so if he listens, he can usually pinpoint our location.

Because Baxter has such a large range, it’s important to be thoughtful about where we hike. I tend to like more remote locations where there’s no chance he’ll find his way to a road or even where we’ll encounter many people.

In order for my dog to find his way back to me on his own, I need him to not be caught by someone who assumes he’s lost. (This has happened once.)

Finding your dog's comfort zone

He also tends to range farther, and I tend to worry less when we’re on a route we hike regularly. In new environments, he’ll stay closer—though he never loses his overconfidence. Once he’s more familiar with a particular trail, he’ll explore and I’ll let him go.

Understanding my dog’s comfort zone has made hiking more enjoyable for both of us. He can sniff and run as he wants, and I can walk as I want. And occasionally, we’ll even do those things together.

How would the rest of you?

What is your dog’s comfort zone like? How about your own comfort zone? Let us know in the comments.

Julia Thomson 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.

Related posts:

Off-leash hiking with your dog

Get your dog to pay attention off leash

Barbara Rivers

Saturday 2nd of December 2017

That's such great peace of mind knowing that your pup will reappear after 10 mins!! I think my boy Buzz might do the same, but I'm not so sure as far as his sister Missy is concerned...she's such a little explorer puppy and has taken off a few times in the 6 years she's been with me. She always came back, but it was more along the lines of about an hour...time enough to make me freak out of where she might be or what might have happened to her.

Lindsay Stordahl

Saturday 2nd of December 2017

Oh that would scare me too! We had Remy off leash today on the trail and he ran into the brush to flush out some doves. He was out of sight for probably only 1 minute but it still made me nervous! Haha. However, I knew to just keep walking and he would appear. He did.

Susan Turner

Friday 1st of December 2017

Great article, thanks.


Wednesday 29th of November 2017

Id not thought about that a dog could have a time limit away exploring, but yeh, it makes sense. The only problem that I personally have with it is that if I see a 'loose' dog I get scared because this how I was bit many years ago - and it has left me with the psychological scar when I see a dog with no owner. Dogs smell fear and I could well be in danger dependant on the dog, but when I saw a dog in the same situation the other day, it must have known because it stopped, lowered its body, told me that it was no threat and waited for me to go on my way, but my heart was in my mouth. I'm just grateful that I can read a dogs body language as in the above situation it helps me to calm down.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Thursday 30th of November 2017

You make a really good point. This is one of the reasons (if Bax isn't ranging on his own) everyone in our hike group calls our dogs to us and leashes up when we meet people or other dogs. You never know what people's experience is. I'm glad that you're able to understand that the dog you met wasn't going to be a threat. That's a really tough situation to find yourself in.


Tuesday 28th of November 2017

This article makes me feel so much better. I was always worried as our Charlie, whom we have had four months now (she is a 17-month-old rescue German Shepherd cross (we believe another big part of her is Lurcher), does totally her own thing when we hike in the woods (near London in Great Britain). I will check my watch next time and revert. She always reappears after some time, sometimes ahead of us as well...

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Thursday 30th of November 2017

As long as she comes back, I try not to worry too much. The first few times are of course really anxious, but I found my confidence grew when Bax came back. And knowing his time limit helped immensely. Since you've only had Charlie for four months, I'd still be focused on obedience and bonding, just to ensure that she has lots of reasons to come back!


Monday 27th of November 2017

We only do off leash hiking at the dog park, because there just aren't other places I feel are safe enough (other hikers, hunters, roads, etc). But she doesn't typically go too far. I can see the herding dog in her as she ranges; she'll usually trot and explore in big circles, typically with a range of no more than about 100 feet. For obvious reason we work to keep her within our line of sight, but her exploration time is usually closer to seconds than minutes. She'll check in and circle around again.

This weekend, though, we actually had someone try to catch her because they thought she was without an owner. We were maybe ten feet behind her. Literally that close, and she was just sniffing. Some random girl tried to grab her collar. My dog looked at her like, "Who are you and are you nuts?" both times. I called to her and the girl said, "Oh. She does have people." Um...yes. Right here.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Monday 27th of November 2017

That's great that she checks in so frequently. The dog park is a great place to assess how your dog pays attention to you (provided your dog's okay in this type of environment).

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 27th of November 2017

Oh my gosh! Haha.