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Off-leash trail etiquette for dogs

Allowing dogs to venture off leash while traversing the trails can build confidence and increase the amount of exercise they get—the benefits are significant. However, you’ll have to prepare before taking the leap, while staying attentive to certain guidelines that should be followed. Below are some ways to make it all go smoothly.

Utilize Clicker Training

A clicker is a small handheld device that’s used consistently to create audible association when your pet does something good. Typically, owners keep treats on hand to use in conjunction with this type of training. It can be useful on the trails, as it keeps your pup on track, and motivated to continue making you happy. Clickers don’t always work out, so you can use a word like “good” or “yes”, every time a good behavior is displayed. The most important thing is repetition, but clickers really do work the best in comparison to voice markers.

Take Baby Steps

Maybe your dog just isn’t ready to go completely off leash for the entire duration of the outing; and you certainly don’t want to endure embarrassing encounters with other pet owners or put your pet in danger. While still in the training process, consider a long leash to allow some wiggle room so they can test their limits, and practice obedience. Retractable leashes have caused injury to both human and animals, so do your research before buying.

Tip: PetMD offers useful information on helping pet owners choose the right dog leash.

When you’re ready to let your dog walk freely, keep a leash with you, just in case. Even the most well-behaved dogs can get spooked, or even a little resistant to your direction.

Bring Treats

There’s nothing like a bit of incentive, although you don’t want to use delicious goodies to promote bad behavior. However, any parent will admit that snacks can save the day in an awkward or intense moment. Perhaps your typically perfect furry one instinctively decides to bolt after some form of wildlife—a bacon flavored treat might be enough to redirect their focus. Secondly, you can reward them along the way when they follow a command, thus making the outing a great training exercise.

Socialize with Caution

As a rule of thumb, it’s best for owners to train their dogs to not approach others. This can be tricky, and it isn’t always easy to keep strangers from allowing their pups to get too close. While we all want to be friendly, animals can be unpredictable, so it’s best to schedule play dates with those you know personally.

Tip: If your dog does end up in a scuffle, do not put yourself in between, or try to grab his or her collar—this could lead to injury. Stay calm, but make loud noises to redirect their attention, or try to use something, like a large stick, to gently separate them.

Keep Tags Updated

Tags are imperative when going sans leash, because there’s always that chance dogs could run off. Vaccination tags are a part of general etiquette as well, because it’s nice to be reassured that the dogs around you are up to date. But if one method works better than anything else, it’s microchipping—beloved pets who would have never made their way back home have been located via the technology.

Tip: Always keep microchip information up to date by updating your profile with changes in address, phone number, etc. Each year about 10 million pets go missing in the US, and only 10% are reunited with their owners. Read more about lost pet prevention.

With consistent effort and patience, your dog will have no problem getting into “off leash” shape. Trail etiquette is generally simple after basic commands can be followed. Training and teaching obedience skills can be a fantastic way to bond together, and when they nail the tasks, you’ll enjoy even more togetherness on the trails. Lastly, just be considerate of others, pick up any doggy dirty business and enjoy the great outdoors!

Editor’s Note: New to the trails? Check out this beginner’s guide to hiking (for humans).


Karyn Wofford is a “Mom” to her fluffy, sweet dog Halli. She spends much of her time traveling and advocating for Type 1 diabetes—and Halli sometimes accompanies her on her adventures. You’ll find Karyn’s work on sites like Mother Earth Living, and in magazines such as Diabetes Forecast.

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