Trail Etiquette For You and Your Dog

Hike nicely with your dog on public lands
By Jill Reynolds, May 2019, Updated February 2020
Photo by Kerkez Photography

Photo by Kerkez Photography

I’ve had the pleasure of hiking and backpacking with Australian Shepherds in Colorado’s wilderness areas for almost 30 years. During that time, my dogs and I have encountered moose, deer, elk, porcupine, pica, bobcat, coyote and a host of other critters. While those encounters have been interesting, it is by far more challenging to share the woods with Homo sapiens, a curious and unpredictable species.

The U.S. Forest Service considers the public lands they manage to be “Lands of Many Uses.” That is especially true in the area of recreation. On any given summer weekend, hikers and their dogs may encounter a pack of mountain bikers careening down steep switchbacks and around blind corners. Equestrians plod along trails with steep drop-offs on either side, their mounts often ready to bolt or jump at unexpected noises or sudden appearances by our canine pals. Trail runners are “in the zone” and often don’t realize someone is sharing their route.

After years of experience in the backcountry with all kinds of recreationalists, I’ve come to an absolutely amazing conclusion. A conclusion that, even now, I can’t quite believe. Brace yourself.

Not everyone likes dogs.


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It’s true.

Now, I don’t claim to understand those people. But because we all share the trails, campsites, parks and national forests, it is definitely in the dog owner’s best interest to learn to coexist with everyone. Here in Larimer County, several of our newer “open space” areas prohibit dogs. If we want to continue to enjoy the great outdoors with our pups, we need to get our collective act together and learn how to be good citizens.

Where to start? Simple. You must train your dog. As Dr. Seuss might say: Train them gently on the trail./Train them in the wind and hail./Train them to stop on a dime./Train them to come every time./Train them sitting by your side./Train them even three dogs wide.

Some people just don’t want to be approached by any dog. Period. What’s more, they have that right. Keep your dog under control and never assume that folks are tickled to see your handsome boy frolicking in the forest.

Here are more suggestions to help you get along with your fellow outdoor adventurists.

1. Scan for hikers, bicyclists and horses headed your way. Be proactive: move off the trail, sit/ stay your dog and let others pass. Don’t worry about who has the right of way. Take the high road and move your pup off-trail no matter who is coming.

2. Check your rear-view occasionally. Horseback riders and bicyclists can come up fast, surprising and startling both you and your dog. Again, be proactive; get off the trail and let them pass.

3. Be aware of blind turns; listen for folks talking, horse hooves or the fat tires of mountain bikes headed your way.

4. When meeting horses, get to the downhill side of the trail, move at least 10 yards off if possible, and stay quiet and still. Horses are prey animals and startling them can result in serious problems for everyone.

5. Clean up after your dog. On popular trails, the six-foot section on either side of the path gets ugly fast. It doesn’t take a genius to know that most land mines will be dropped in the first quarter-mile from the parking lot. Do your part and pick up.

Since following these guidelines, I have never had a negative encounter with other users. Most people smile, compliment the well-behaved dog and say “thanks.” All in all, it makes my day a whole lot better as well; nothing ruins a great outing faster than a nasty exchange.

Now, on to the controversial subject of off-leash hiking. Check out the regulations for the area you’re planning to explore. Populated areas require dogs to be on-leash, but off-leash hiking is allowed in many wilderness areas, and USFS and BLM lands allow dogs off-leash if they’re under voice control.

Again, this comes back to personal responsibility. Training your dog to have an extremely reliable recall—including being called off chasing wildlife—takes a lot of hard work and continued practice.

If you’re not willing to put in that work, keep your dog on-leash. If off-leash hiking is a passion and regulations permit, here are some suggestions for finding a little solitude for you and your dog to roam.

1. Go very early in the morning when places are not as crowded. You’ll be headed back for ice cream as the parking lot fills up!

2. Choose areas that are lightly used. Usually, this means trails not as convenient to town. If the parking lot is crowded, look for another trail.

3. Hike off-season. Many very popular summer trails are totally deserted in the late fall, winter or early spring.

4. Understand the trade-offs for responsible off-leash hiking. You may give up the gorgeous alpine lake destination hike for a lesser known basic canyon hike without the whole babbling-brook thing. For my Aussie and me, that’s an easy call!

5. Finally, consider off-trail hiking. Learn to use a map, compass and GPS. Practice in areas you are familiar with before heading offtrail. Take a class in backcountry navigation and get comfortable reading and navigating from topographic maps.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

Anyone who enjoys being in the backcountry with their dog knows there is beauty, nourishment and a sense of connection with our canine pals that reaches deep and stirs the soul. I feel his exhilaration in being who he was meant to be. His nose is up into the wind, picking up information that I can only imagine. I give him these opportunities because his joy brings me great happiness, but I never forget my obligation to keep him and other backcountry users safe. Like it or not, what each dog owner does reflects on all dog owners. As the world gets more crowded, responsible dog owners help maintain our continued access to public lands. Make your adventure days fun, easy and amicable.

See you on the trail!

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 97: Spring 2019

Jill Reynolds owns Canine Massage of the Rockies in Fort Collins and has backpacked in 26 of Colorado’s wilderness areas. She’s a member of Larimer County SAR, and her pup, Skid, is a certified SAR dog. She lives in Red Feather Lakes and hosts a radio show about animals on KRFC.