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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.

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