Hiking with a dog off leash – 10 tips to make it work


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Hiking with a dog off leash

I know, hiking with a dog off leash is a sensitive topic. Some people feel like hiking with a dog isn’t any fun if he’s on a leash. Others think every dog should be on a leash, no matter what.

And then there are lots of rules and regulations depending on the park or the trail which sometimes mean that dogs aren’t allowed at all, let alone off leash!

Regardless of all those factors, I’d like to show you how you can go hiking with a dog off leash and what you need to observe to make it a positive experience for everyone.

Here’s the quick answer: hiking with a dog off leash is possible if certain precautions are taken. The most important being that it has to be allowed where you’re hiking. However, you always need to train your dog in order to make him walk off leash. This involves a very solid recall, being able to walk heel regardless the distraction and being able to ignore other people and animals.

Now, that’s the basic, short answer. Let’s look at the details next.

General information about off leash hiking with a dog

So, before we get into the actual tips and tricks on how to make hiking with a dog off leash a fun and positive experience, I’d like to give you some general information on the topic.

Dog friendly hiking trails

First of all, you always need to check that the trail you want to hike is dog friendly. That probably goes without saying but it should really be the first thing you check when looking for your next hiking trail.

However, dog friendly doesn’t necessarily mean “dog off leash friendly”. So, when you do your research, make sure you check that, too.

If dogs aren’t allowed off leash, please just stick to the rules! There’s nothing more annoying (and potentially dangerous) than a dog off leash approaching another dog that’s leashed. More on that in a minute.

We got quite a lot of snow on our last hiking trip

Where can I let my dog off leash?

In general, you can always let your dog off leash in dog parks and designated dog areas. Some states have pretty strict leash laws, which means that dogs have to be leashed on all trails. Others are more liberal.

European countries are usually much more liberal. For instance, in Switzerland you can let your dog off leash almost everywhere. The only exception are forests between April and July because of the wildlife’s breeding season.

So, always make sure to do your research.

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What do you do if an off-leash dog approaches?

First of all, stay calm!

So, as I’ve just said, encounters between off-leash and leashed dogs are pretty annoying and can become dangerous.

The reason for that is that the leashed dog can’t move around freely. And since body language and distance is an important part of canine communication, it can easily be misunderstood by the other dog.

Here you can see how much space dogs need to interact and communicate:

Also, the leashed dog might feel anxious or threatened, because he can’t back out.

So, the best way to deal with an unleashed dog if your own dog is leashed, is to either politely as the other owner to please leash his dog. Or if that doesn’t work, I’m making a big detour around the other dog. This is actually canine communication too and acts as a de-escalator.

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If none of this works and the other dog doesn’t seem friendly, it’s best to stand in front of your own dog and swing something in circles, like the end of your leash, a stick or simply your arm. Accompany this by saying “no” or something like that in a loud voice.

This startles the other dog and will most likely let him lose interest in your dog.

You can also try tossing treats to distract him. This works best in high grass where he has to look for them. Then you can quietly walk away, making, giving the other dog lot’s of space.

Baloo in the middle of our hiking group

How to hike with a dog off leash

Okay, now let’s get into the actual steps you need to take to have the best experience hiking with your dog off leash.

1. Train basic commands

First of all, you need to train basic commands.

Your dog definitely needs to know sit, down, stay, walking heel, and of course, a solid recall.

Baloo hiking next to me

2. Train a super solid recall

So, your dog’s recall is honestly the most important part of off leash training. If that doesn’t work, you can’t let your dog go off leash. It’s simply too dangerous for your dog and other people or animals.

So, make sure to train this in a your backyard, a fenced park or with a long leash until it works 10/10.

Really the most important part of training it is to always reward him when he comes to you. Yes, even if he went after that squirrel first!

I know this might seem counterintuitive but your dog has a memory span of about 2 seconds. If he’s coming back after his chase, he doesn’t remember it. So, if you scold him at that moment, he feels punished for coming back to you…

See where I’m going?

Always make coming back to you the best thing possible!

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How to train a solid recall

Make sure to start in an environment with very low distraction, such as your backyard. Then, slowly train in slightly more distracting areas, such as in a field, using a long leash. If your pup is very interested in other dogs, the dog park would probably be the most difficult part to train. So, once he his recall is super solid even with other dogs around, you know he’s ready to go off leash on the trail!

For prey-driven dogs, the ultimate level will be a squirrel or cat running by. If he can focus on you and come when called with that kind of distraction around, he’s ready, too!

If your dog is still a puppy, I highly, highly recommend you train that his focus on you. I’ve read that somewhere when I first got Baloo as a puppy and it honestly helped me so much.

The way you do that is to go somewhere with basically no distraction. The best way is just a meadow or your backyard. When they’re still very young, they’re still very focused on you because they know that they rely on you to survive.

So, losing you would put them in a very bad situation. This is why you can let them off leash and train like that. The trick is to walk and always turn around as soon as he gets in front of you. Don’t look back directly at him. Just make sure he’s following, which he will! Then walk again until he’s overtaking you and immediately turn around again.

This worked like a charm for Baloo and me. Now, he’s still very focused on me and never goes further than a few feet. And even if he does, he’s got a solid recall or will turn around by himself.

3. Always have a leash at hand

Even if you trained him well, there can always be situations coming up where you have to leash your dog. The main scenario being another leashed dog approaching.

Unless your dog is a master at walking heel and ignoring the other dog, make sure to leash him as well. This helps reduce any possible friction.

In case your dog gets a little too interested in other hikers or wildlife, you’ll also have to leash him when other people are approaching or when you’re hiking in the forest etc.

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4. Leash your dog if another leashed dog approaches – always!

I know, I’m repeating myself but this is really super important. Just make sure you’ve got your dog under control, and this includes leashing him if another leashed dog approaches!

This is also the main reason why Baloo generally isn’t allowed to walk in front of me. It makes it much easier for me to check who’s coming and leash him if necessary.

5. Make sure he stays close to you

This is also a great way to make your hike much more relaxed.

I’ve noticed that Baloo listens well, even with other small animals around (like birds or squirrels), if I make sure he stays close to me.

He normally does that by himself but there are times where he feels a little more independent. If I just let him go, then I sort of lose the connection with him and he wanders off following an interesting smell.

Baloo stays nicely in the middle of our hiking group

This is why I try to keep our communication going, calling him back if I notice he goes further than usual. And of course he gets yummy treats and fetch games regularly if he stays close to me!

Here’s some inspiration:

6. Leash your dog on busy trails

I generally recommend to leash your dog on busy trails. It’s just much more relaxing to have him under control without having to doublecheck that there’s no other leashed dog or child approaching every second.

7. Leash your dog where there’s wildlife

Another important point is to leash your dog where you know that there’s wildlife. This can be to protect the wildlife from your dog, but also mostly the other way around!

You definitely don’t want your dog to wander off leash in bear country or where there are snakes!

8. Pick up your dog’s poop

I know, poop is just nature, right?

Well, yes, but the problem is that there are just so many dogs that it gets the natural ecosystem out of balance if all the dog poop stays where your dog leaves it…

This is why you should always pick up after your dog, even when hiking in the mountains or bury it at least.

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9. Communicate with other trail users

If someone looks anxious, leash your dog. In case you’re not sure, ask them.

Also communicate with other dog owners. Only let your dogs have contact if the other owner approved it. I recommend to only let dogs have contact off leash, because leashes again are a hindrance to canine communication. So, if you meet another dog owner with a leashed dog, just ask them if it’s okay for the dogs to have contact.

10. Just be a responsible dog owner!

To wrap this up, just make sure to be a responsible dog owner.

Do your research for what kind of behavior is required from you and your dog. You generally don’t want to frighten or annoy anyone on the trail.

And of course, the basic trail rule always counts: leave the trails as you found them and pick up after you and your dog.

Find Baloo!

General tips for dog friendly hiking

If you’d love to go hiking with your dog, but prefer having him on a leash, then I’ve got a few other articles for you.

How far can a dog hike in a day? Probably more than you think

How much weight can a dog carry in a backpack?

10 best small dog breeds to take hiking this summer

6 best dog backpack carriers for hiking

Complete guide for hiking with a small dog for beginners

How long can a small dog hike? A preparation guide

10 things you need to know before hiking with a puppy

Complete backpacking packing list for you and your dog

Enjoy reading a getting ready to hit the trail!

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