Should You Hike With Your Dog Off Leash?

One of my favorite things to do with my dog Ace is taking him on off-leash hikes and walks.

I had no idea this was such a controversial issue until I innocently posted about hiking with my dog off leash on another site and people (serious backpackers) told me a thing or two about how dogs should never hike off leash!

Their reasons were:

  • safety of other hikers &
  • concern for the wildlife

As much as I hate to admit it, they’re right. Dogs do cause a lot of problems.

I’m going to go over some of those safety concerns, but I’m not saying you should never hike with your dog off leash. That’s up to you to decide, and either way, it’s good to be aware of these issues. (Not to mention, it’s illegal for dogs to be off leash in most areas.)

Potential safety risks when off-leash hiking with your dog

1. Your dog could run off and get lost. Read our post about this here.

2. You don’t want him tangling with wild animals like skunks, raccoons, moose, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, a mama bear and cubs or whatever it might be.

3. Your dog could fall over a ledge or slip on loose rocks.

4. Your dog could jump on someone, knock someone over or cause a mountain biker or horseback rider to fall.

5. Some people are afraid of all dogs, especially big dogs.

6. Other dogs on the trails might not be friendly.

Are there any other safety risks? Leave them in the comments.

Environmental concerns related to off-leash dogs:

1. An off-leash dog is more likely to disturb wildlife. Dogs can easily injure some types of wild animals, but even just picking up a rock or stick could disturb a creature’s home.

2. Dog poop can be damaging to the water. It can also carry parasites and more. (Read about it here.) Plus, we all know dog owners are less likely to pick up that poop if the dog is bounding around off leash.

3. Dogs can carry or transfer parasites or diseases, and this is more likely to be an issue when dogs are off the designated trails.

What else would you add to this list?

Now ... all that being said, some of us are still going to allow our dogs off leash at times and there are certain areas where this is allowed.

How do you know when you can trust your dog off leash?

Each dog is different, and they're all going to respond differently depending on the situation. While some dogs naturally stick close to their owners, some dogs should never be trusted off leash.

First, what are the leash laws? Depending on where you are, dogs are most likely required to be on a leash. And that's if they are even allowed on the trails at all! Each park is different, and it depends on if it’s a national park or a state park, private land, etc. Make sure to check the rules in advance.

How reliably does your dog come when called? If he doesn’t come when called in your own backyard, he’s not going to come when called while tracking a rabbit. Before a dog is allowed to hike off leash he should have a lot of experience being off leash in more controlled areas like fenced dog parks, an advanced obedience class, etc.

Is your dog ever aggressive to dogs or people? If so, he probably doesn’t need any off-leash privileges, at least not while hiking.

Are there mountain bikes or horses allowed on this particular trail? If so, better keep your dog on a leash for safety. There are way too many "blind" corners, and even a well-trained dog can easily startle a horse or crash into a bike.

ID tags. Your dog is wearing ID tags, right? And is the info updated? Is your dog also microchipped?

What it comes down to is making the best choice for your particular situation. While most of us love the idea of off-leash hiking with our dogs, our dogs really don't need to be off leash in order to enjoy a hiking adventure. It's typically best to follow the rules in order to keep everyone safe. That way, dogs will continue to be welcome on as many trails as possible.

Do you enjoy hiking with your dog? How do you keep her safe on the trails?

Want more training tips for your dog? Check out these blogs.

What To Do If Your Dog Won't Listen

Microchip ID Tags: Keeping Your Pet Safe