There’s nothing more liberating than roaming free on the trail, so it’s only natural that dog owners want to share that feeling with their pups. But going unleashed comes with extra responsibility, too—first and foremost, to keep hikers, your dog, and other animals safe. Before you let Fido loose on the trail, here’s what you need to think about.
Where and when
There’s a time and a place for going untethered. The majority of national parks either don’t allow dogs or require them to be on a leash. Many wilderness areas also require you keep your dog clipped in. Make sure you know the rules, and pay attention to them or you risk being fined.
Get information about the plants and animals in the area, as well as activities like logging, trail work, or mining (watch out for old shafts) that could endanger your pup’s life. If you’re hiking in or near an area where hunting is allowed, dress your dog in blaze orange and keep him or her near you.
Before you consider letting him or her off-leash, your dog should be perfectly socialized. That means no growling or lunging at dogs or other people, no jumping, and no barking at everything that walks, crawls, or flutters by.
Second, you need to be able to keep your dog under voice control. That means making sure your dog obeys when you tell him or her to stay, sit, or heel.
Be honest about your dog’s abilities: If your dog listens to your voice only some of the time, he or she is not ready to go off leash. Wandering too far away from you could lead your pup into trouble with terrain hazards, wild animals, or less-socialized dogs, or even just spook a hiker who is afraid of canines.
That being said, bringing along an enticing treat to lure your dog back to you can’t hurt.
Bring a leash and keep it accessible, even if you plan on walking your pet without it. In case of injury, he or she may need to be restrained. If you do run into a wild animal or another hiker who isn’t wild about your trail buddy, you’ll be able to give him or her some space.
Condition your dog ahead of time, not only to be physically prepared to hike with you, but also to be mentally prepared to be off leash. Practice off-leash behavior in your yard or another fenced in area before setting off on a wilderness adventure.
While on the trail, keep an eye out for poisonous or icky items that your dog may eat. Use caution when letting your pet drink from streams: Dogs can get giardia too. Make sure you have the first aid supplies to deal with any injuries your pet may get.
A word on poop
Being in the great outdoors doesn’t excuse you from picking up your dog’s doo-doo. Don’t bag it and leave it to pick up on the way back, either: No one wants to see or smell dog poop on the trail, and being a responsible pet owner keeps other dogs, unleashed or not, from getting a bad rap. Always carry it out.