One thing about outdoors people, we really love our dogs. Speaking for myself, I doubt I’d have gotten out as much over the years had I not had a four-legged partner to care for and take on adventures. Having a canine partner along on trips is enriching beyond measure. In my lifetime, my family and I have owned twenty dogs over the years. Also speaking for myself, I think dogs are mostly better than people.
However, since it’s people taking the dogs on trails and into the backcountry, here’s some tips on making sure your dog is welcome there. Not everyone likes dogs, and very few people appreciate a poorly trained or unsupervised dog. Bringing a dog who isn’t a good citizen onto trails and wilderness makes all dog owners look bad and brings about the possibility of a blanket dog ban. So put on your most responsible pants and make sure you are following the rules:
1. Train your dog. It would seem to go without saying, but it doesn’t. Before you let your dog off leash, make DAMN SURE that it obeys basic commands, is socialized with people and other dogs, and knows to stay close to you. Don’t be the jerk who is either screaming fruitlessly at their dog from 100 yards away, or simply doesn’t bother trying to call the dog because it never listens. Bare minimum: comes when called NO MATTER WHAT, doesn’t chase wildlife, walks beside you calmly, can greet another dog in a friendly manner, is friendly towards people, and doesn’t charge up to people or dogs.
2. Dog out front. Train your dog to stay in front or beside you, not trailing behind. Bike riders and runners are really guilty of breaking this rule, because they are paying more attention to their workout than they are to their dog. If your dog is behind you, guess what – you can’t see him! You have no idea if he’s tired, injured, struggling, fighting with another dog, biting a person, or if he’s even there. And you definitely can’t control what he’s doing. It’s a tiresomely common scenario to have someone’s dog start an incident or create an issue with someone else’s pooch while the dog owner has already ridden ahead around the next bend. You can’t control your dog from the front. You can’t even see your dog from the front. Don’t even try to come to me with the “but my dog” argument. But your dog nothing. You have no idea what your dog is doing when you can’t see it. It’s not everyone else’s responsibility to police your dog; do it yourself. It’s also really heartbreaking to watch your exhausted animal running his heart out to keep up while you sit your lazy ass on your bike seat after coasting down a three mile hill. If your dog is tired, slow down so he can trot beside you. Never go so fast that he can’t keep up.
3. Don’t just let your dog wander. If your dog is out of your sight, you are in the wrong. Full stop. Nobody welcomes your dog coming into their campsite or joining their trip. I can’t even name how many times I’ve seen a dog owner at a trailhead just waiting for their dog to come back from a walkabout like that’s totally normal. I’ve even had an unattended dog jump into my truck at a trailhead. How do people manage to think this is OK? Keep your freaking dog in your line of sight. Always. Don’t be that person.
4. Don’t. Let. Your. Dog. Jump. Up. On. People. I mentioned this in the “train your dog” section, but it’s worth its own bullet. This is a basic social skill that any dog you take in public has to know. If your dog jumps up on people, you are a bad dog owner and pretty much a jerk.
5. Do not let your dog bark at people. Does your dog stand in the trail, barking in alarm when it encounters another person? This is really, really bad dog behavior and you should be ashamed of yourself for letting your dog do this. Until your dog can pass people on a trail without engaging with them, leave it at home or keep it on a leash.
6. Check your excuses. Have the following phrases passed your lips to excuse your dog’s behavior? “He’s a puppy.” “I just got him.” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and especially the most odious “He’s a rescue!” If so, chances are your dog is badly behaved and you are being a really bad dog owner. Let’s get some things straight. First, unless you saved that dog from drowning or pulled him from a burning building, it’s not a “rescue” anything. Stop being overdramatic about where you got your dog. Second, there is zero excuse for your dog to do something bad in public no matter where that dog came from. It is your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen BEFORE you bring your dog out.
7. If your dog has ever bitten a person or another dog, it stays home, forever and ever, NO. MATTER. WHAT. Do not bring such a dog into public. Not even with a muzzle on. Just don’t. No excuses. I have been in this situation twice in my life with dogs I’ve owned. One of those dogs stayed home forever unless he was going to the vet, and he lived a good long life in a large, secure backyard. The other one of those dogs got put down because he could not be confined and was a danger to others. That is just the way it goes. Make those tough decisions as you must, but NEVER bring an aggressive or unpredictable dog out in public ever. EVER.
8. Even leashed dogs must be trained. Having a dog lunging, barking, straining at a leash, and/or dragging its owner across a trail is really unsettling. People you encounter have no idea if your dog is going to rip their throats out if it gets loose, or what. The only thing they do know for certain is that you have zero control over the dog. Even if you opt to have your dog on a leash, make sure you meet rule #1 before you bring it out on trails.
9. Poop does not belong on trails. I’m not even a hardliner who thinks dog poop needs to be picked up in little bags and carried home (though that would be nice, but it’s unrealistic). However, when dogs shit RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of a damn trail and the owner just leaves it there? That is just ridiculous and lazy. Do your job, pick it up and toss it in the woods.
10. Take care of your dog. Don’t be that jerk who doesn’t bring enough dog food for a four day backpacking trip and just makes his dog suffer the whole time. Don’t plan a 60 mile packraft journey and figure your dog can just run along the bank the whole time and be fine. Don’t decide that your couch potato Labrador can keep up on a 40 mile mountain bike trip. Don’t make him sprint after your bike for hours with no water. And for god’s sake, stop bringing your dog backcountry skiing – it’s bad for the dog and dangerous for everyone else. If your dog is exhibiting soreness or reluctance to move the day after your outings, you are way overdoing it. Pushing your dog so hard he can’t move the day after isn’t funny or cute, it’s cruel.