Written by Howie with help from Dr Joanna Woodnutt, a UK-based veterinarian, who has read the article and approved its accuracy.
We love to think that everyone would enjoy the company of a four-legged buddy while on a trail. But that is not the reality. Nature trails attract all manner of people, and everyone has the right to enjoy the outdoors without fear or annoyance. You could fancy a leash-free hike with your dog, but it could irk or scare other hikers.
Since we all have to somehow live together in harmony rather than build walls, we can settle on a not-to-hard solution – training. If you would like a leash-free adventure with your four-legged buddy, we have compiled helpful information on how to train your dog to hike off-leash.
We will talk about the hazards, share some basics of hiking off-leash, and tell you how to prepare him for a leash-free outdoor adventure. We will also give you a few tips on keeping your dog safe while he is off the leash.
The Hazards With Going Off Leash
Before you rush off to a trail, it is vital to appreciate that it is not an easy world out there - even for a dog. Many dangers lurk. There are also several laws to control your dog and other animals.
A not-so-well trained dog could run off to a highway and cause serious accidents. Your dog could also encounter other hikers, bikers, livestock, or animals and trigger serious misfortunes.
A dog off-the leash, even though friendly, could set off all manner of behavioral issues in other animals and people. Worse still, your dog could distract service animals within the vicinity. It could set you off to a downward spiral with the law.
Regardless of where you are or how friendly your dog is, you are responsible for his actions. You could face charges (criminal or civil) if your dog causes unwarranted harm.
Take the steps to avoid that.
Use Your Common Sense - The Basics
Now that you know what dangers lie ahead, let’s see how you can avert them and still enjoy a leash-free hike with your pooch.
Leash-free hiking is when you let your dog run around, and chase squirrels without a leash. Of course, this is not legal everywhere, and this is why you should use your first common sense - the sense of sight.
Look out for any posters and notices of prohibitions before you set off for a trail. If you cannot see any, use your other common sense: ask the authorities. Duh!
If you are on a trail that permits leash-free hiking, assess each situation and make a smart decision. If you are approaching another dog that looks excited, or a family with children who look frightened, or a tribe of mountain goats, put a leash on him and give way.
Your pooch could be friendly to humans and animals. But remember, he is still instinct-driven, and it could be disastrous at times.
Train Your Dog How To Hike Off-leash
Knowing your pooch’s personality and temperament is key to a successful training regimen. If the dog has an overly aggressive personality or ignores your calls, consider a retractable leash before starting on leash-free hikes. However, if he is already showing good behavior, follow these ABCs and prepare your dog for leash-free hikes.
A - Appropriate Behavior
Teach him how to maintain a composed look, and walk calmly on or off a leash. Your dog should be comfortable around people, not jump on them or beg for food from other hikers. Also, teach your dog not to show aggression or excitement when near other dogs or other animals.
B - Basic Skills
Your pooch should master some basic skills before you attempt leash-free hiking.
A reliable recall command is a must-have skill. That is, the dog returns to you immediately on your call. You can begin simple recall command lessons from home. Then up the game slightly whenever you take him out for a walk in familiar surroundings. If you feel uneasy about it, start with a regular length leash, and progress to a longer, retractable leash. As the training sessions move further from home, treat him generously each time he resists a strong temptation or instinctive desire.
Regular check-ins are yet another vital skill to develop before you begin leash-free hiking. It involves training your pooch to turn back and check on you frequently. He can check to see if you are okay with what he is up to and occasionally come to you without being prompted.
At times recalls might not work in an emergency or a hazardous situation. When a situation calls for immediate action as no action, an impromptu sit or down command could save your pup’s life. Like the recall command, you can begin training while at home. Gradually increase your separation distances until he can obey the impromptu down command - even at a distance.
C - Controls His Impulses
Just as it is difficult to hold off a sneeze, your pooch will find it hard to control his impulses. Dogs instinctively chase squirrels, get excited when they see another dog, and aggressive when they feel threatened.
Teach your dog to control his impulses before taking your first leash-free hike.
A favorite approach for many is the walk-away command. It’s completely against the dog’s grain, but it works! You can teach him to walk away, or turn away from a potential impulse trigger. Hand him a bag of treats whenever he defies instinctive behavior and obeys the instruction to walk away.
These ABCs will help your pooch make significant progress towards a leash-free hike. But remember that he is still a pooch. Despite rigorous training, you are still responsible. So, assess each situation on its merits and make a smart decision.
Keep Your Pooch Safe
Now that you are about to take your first leash-free hike, plan to learn as much as possible. Take precautions and note the hazards that your dog could encounter.
You can start by answering: is the pup old enough to go on a hike? How can you ensure you keep your dog cool and hydrated if hiking in the summer? Then, learn as much as possible about what to expect when hiking a forest trail with a dog, and gather tips on how to keep him safe from bears and other animals.
When you are ready to hit the trail, be sure to look out for signs or warnings about:
- Venomous snakes
- Wildlife and other animals
- Busy roads nearby
- Icy ponds
We adopted a Labrador a year ago and were so excited to take him out on our trail walks. He didn’t have any behavioral issues, so we were confident that he would behave well off the leash, but it was chaos! He was so excitable and it was hard to get him to return.
We tried to train him whilst out so many times, but it was only once we started working on simple commands from home first that we noticed any real difference. Using simple recall commands daily, and then running through them while out was really helpful, especially when we did it in conjunction with using a progressively longer, retractable leash. We kept the praise and treats up for a long time, too. Now, he still gets just as excited but stays quite close and always responds to our calls and commands. It’s so nice to be able to enjoy walking him without a leash and being so confident in his actions!
Understanding the hazards of leash-free hiking, using common sense, and mastering the ABCs will take your pooch to a new level. However, if the dog still expresses these behaviors:
- Inability to control predatory behaviors.
- Aggression towards other dogs and people.
- Unreliable response to recall command and walk away command.
Do not despair. Keep a leash handy and keep training. Be patient with your pup until he masters the skills. It's your ticket for a worry-free leash-free hike.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.