At Dogs in the Park, we encourage everyone to use the local trail systems to responsibly exercise their dogs OFF LEASH. Why you might ask? For a whole pile of reasons! To begin with, off leash exercise is much more effective at burning off energy for dogs as it allows them to move in ways that are normal and natural; fast at first, and then slow; suddenly stopping to sniff and taking off again in a hurry, on no one’s agenda other than their own. And what about the opportunity to play? Play cannot happen when you are constrained by a line that limits where you can go and what you can do! Off leash exercise, in a trained dog is a joy to behold and energizing to experience, but you do have a responsibility to be aware of the risks before you start.
The first risk to consider of course is the environment. Is it a safe environment for your dog to be in? When trail walking you should know your terrain and you should avoid areas that may be difficult for your dog. Some of these things include (but are not limited to!) cliffs (yes, I have watched a dog run right over a cliff and although he was not injured, he could well have been), water (heavily coated breeds are especially at risk of drowning if they are waterlogged), heat, cold and toxic plants are all things to consider when choosing where you walk your dog.
Next, you should consider your dog’s age and training. Young dogs, under 16 weeks rarely stray; they are busy staying with the group and keeping up. This is the very best time to train your dog to come when called and to follow where you lead; in fact I wrote a whole blog on that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/. Older dogs need to prove to me that they will come when called, and that only happens when I have trained the dogs to do that.
Thirdly, you need to consider the traffic risks that you will encounter. No one would intentionally allow their dogs to rush into the road and get hit by a moving vehicle, but there are other sorts of traffic to consider; you need to think about off road traffic such as snow mobiles and ATVs. Often, these vehicles are the ones that break the trails we use when we are walking our dogs. This means that we need to keep in mind the risks we face when we are out on the trails, especially when there are corners and intersections. I never recommend wearing ear phones when out on the trails because you never know when you might be faced with an oncoming moving vehicle.
Wildlife often follow regular travel lines, much as motor vehicles do, and you should get to know the habits of the animals that you may encounter. Locally, I am aware of the game trails left by deer, coyotes and raccoons; the three species of wildlife I would prefer my dogs did not interact with. All three of these animals leave clear marks on the ground where they have been. It makes my walk much more interesting to keep an eye out for new trails and see how often established trails are being used. When I know that wildlife is especially abundant, I may chose that location to leash up and do some on leash training in the middle of my walk; this makes the wildlife itself the cue to the dog that some training fun is about to happen, and that can lead to a dog who comes to me instead of chases after a scent when they encounter a wild animal. THAT is worth its weight in gold!
Perhaps the final thing I want to consider when I am choosing a trail is the other trail users on that particular trail. Often I will explore a trail without my dog before walking with him. This gives me a chance to find out what the culture is of a particular trail. Is it inhabited mostly by serious hikers wearing packs and carrying binoculars? Are they birders? Then I won’t bring my dogs along and interrupt their fun! Is it mostly full of families with toddlers? Again, then it is not my first choice for walking. Is there a known aggressive dog who regularly walks there? If I hear about this, then I will avoid the area.
My ideal walking trail is one where dog walkers are common, and there is little to no poison ivy (few people realize that the oil on poison ivy can transfer to them via their dog’s coats). It will have polite walkers who pick up after their dogs, and who don’t litter. I like trails with some variety in terrain, and that have some water for the dogs to use to cool off. I like trails that have a parking area away from the main road, but not too far away as those often have poor driveways with lots of potholes.
As a final word, I would like to mention what I keep an eye out for when I see other dog walkers. If the other walkers leash up their dogs, I leash up mine. There is nothing worse than having a dog who needs to be on leash harassed by someone’s off leash dog who “just wants to say hi”. It is a small thing, but if you encounter an on leash dog, either down your dog or dogs, so that they can pass by, or leash up and avoid any issues. If the other dogs are off leash, I will determine if their dogs are friendly by observing their behaviour. Friendly dogs approach in a loose arc or S pattern, and they are frisking along moving sort of like a Rocking Horse, with their front end up and then their back end up. Unfriendly dogs often move in straight flat lines, often very quickly. Sometimes it is too late to do anything by the time that I recognize that the other dogs are on their way, but often I can intervene by getting my dogs to lie down and stay and then stepping in between the oncoming dog and passively splitting the interaction. If that is not safe, I will try tricks such as throwing food at the oncoming dog, and calling to their owner for help. In a pinch, throwing my car keys down between the unknown dogs and my dogs can interrupt a dog rushing in. Always though, I want to make sure that my dogs are in a down position where I know that I can take steps to protect their best interests.