Should I Let My Dog Off-Leash While Hiking?
Here's what to consider when hiking with a four-legged friend
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Treadiquette is a monthly Backpacker column helping hikers calibrate their moral compasses. Have a burning question about ethics or etiquette on the trail? Send your predicaments to email@example.com.
I love to hike with my dog, who is very well-behaved. I keep him leashed on busy trails, but on a recent hike, I let him off-leash despite signs indicating that leashes were required. We didn’t see any other hikers or animals for the whole day, and not holding the leash made it easier for me to navigate uneven terrain. Was I wrong to do this?
Dear Dog Dad,
I’m an obsessive pet owner myself, and because of that—not in spite of it—I can answer emphatically: Yes, you were wrong. It’s great that you leash your pup on busy trails to respect other hikers. As you probably know, some people, dogs, and kids don’t like being greeted by an unfamiliar pooch when out enjoying nature. But leash requirements exist for a whole host of reasons, and they’re still important even when there aren’t other hikers around. Let’s start with the one that might speak most to a pet parent like you: keeping your dog safe.
Earlier this summer, an unleashed dog in North Carolina provoked a black bear to attack another leashed dog. The attack proved to be fatal for the leashed pet. Your off-leash dog could put you at risk, too, by luring a defensive or aggressive mountain lion, bear, or other predator right to you. Last summer, two hikers and their dog were seriously injured by an aggressive moose in Colorado. Authorities ended up shooting and killing the moose.
An animal lover like yourself might also empathize with the ways leash rules protect wildlife.
“Dogs evolved from predators, and deep down, they still have that instinct,” said Mark Biel, natural resources program manager at Glacier National Park. Biel is a dog person himself; his trained border collie, Gracie, works in the park to shepherd deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep away from highly trafficked areas. Your pet dog, on the other hand, isn’t trained to behave around wildlife, and could negatively impact wild animals. A leash is an easy solution.
“If you keep them on the leash, the dogs won’t harass the wildlife, which in turn prevents the wildlife from having to expend precious fat reserves to either run away or defend itself,” said Biel.
Also, don’t even get us started on dog poop.
“Dog feces is a great way to transmit diseases from domestic animals to wild animals that might not be vaccinated against some of these diseases. And that can lead to potentially wiping out a population in a certain area of the park,” said Biel. If your dog is leashed, you’re way more likely to clean up after it.
You mentioned your dog is “well-behaved.” Biel points out that while that’s probably true, we can’t count on predicting our dog’s behavior in unpredictable backcountry scenarios. Even Gracie, who underwent 12 weeks of specialized training, stays leashed when she is on duty moving animals in Glacier National Park.
“Dogs are individuals that have a mind of their own,” he said. “You might have a general idea of what they’re going to do, but it’s like trying to predict what a teenager’s going to do.”
If you can’t safely navigate the terrain while keeping your pet safely leashed, it’s time to reconsider the types of trails you’re hiking with your dog. Training your pup in loose leash walking will ease the burden on both of you. The American Kennel Club is a great resource for training your dog to be a good hiking companion. Biel also recommends the National Park Service’s B.A.R.K. Ranger program, for more information on recreating with your pup on public lands. There are plenty of areas where your dog is allowed to roam free. But when you’re on a trail that requires otherwise, it’s best for you and your furry friend to follow the rules.