Trail Manners for Dogs and their Owners
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Last modified on: April 16, 2001
Robert Heinlein said that good manners were the lubricant for a smoothly functioning society. Good canine manners should smooth our relationship with other trail users.
A simple rule of thumb we try to follow is the front yard rule: Only behavior that is acceptable in our front yard is acceptable on open space trails. Do you let doggie-doo pile up on your front lawn from your own dog? Do you tolerate neighbors who send their dog over to your yard to relieve themselves?—Of course not! So pick up it and pack it out! If someone else's dog is taking a dump in the middle of the trail, and they seem ready to ignore it and move on, offer them one of your extra bags. (You do carry extras, don't you?)
You might say that cars are the endemic wildlife of city streets. Do you let your dog bark at and chase cars? Of course not! So don't let your dog behave that way to wildlife on trails. Through simple analogies like this, it becomes easy to apply the front yard rule to various circumstances.
Do you turn your dog loose at home and let it wander the neighborhood at will, poking into garbage cans and jumping up on toddlers in their own yards? If you do, you must have an interesting relationship with your local animal control officer. If that's not acceptable or safe behavior in your own neighborhood, it shouldn't be acceptable on open space either. Keeping your dog within sight and under voice control is more than courtesy to others, it's a matter of safety for your dog. At home, it keeps your dog out of traffic; on open space, it can keep your dog from becoming lion lunch.
There are some special circumstances that you find on open space trails where the front yard rule doesn't quite work. Horses, for one. Even though this is Colorado, the great majority of us are not horse-savvy, and so these rules need to be remembered. Even the calmest horse can be spooked, and even the best rider can be thrown. Your job as a dog owner is make sure that you and your dog aren't the cause of such an event. For approaching horses, step to the side of the trail or get off it entirely and have your dog in a down-stay. Leash your dog if necessary to enforce the stay. Greet the riders. Even if they tell you their horses are okay with dogs, just tell them you are being extra-cautious. Everybody gets the warm-fuzzies out of such a polite encounter. Don't let your dog jerk toward the horses as they pass you. Horses are herd animals that survived in the wild by running quickly away from any sudden unexplained motion that they saw out of the corner of their eye. The reaction is hard-wired into their nervous system, and you don't want your dog to trigger it. If you are overtaking horses from behind (rare, but it can happen), let them know you are there in a conversational tone of voice, and let the riders know that you have a dog with you. Then let them figure out whether they'll move aside on the trail or just stop until you are past. Don't pass them until you get acknowledgment that they are ready for you. Regardless of how the riders handle it, leash your dog before approaching and passing the horses.
More unpredictable than horses are bikes. With skill levels ranging from young children wobbling along with their parents to caffeine-stoked mountain "dewds" bouncing downhill at Mach 2, you can't count on any consistent behavior. Experienced cyclists themselves will tell you that they don't put a lot of trust in the riding skills of strangers. Take no comfort in the posted rules of right-of-way (everyone yields to equestrians, cyclists yield to all other trail users). If you and your dog can get off to the side to let cyclists pass, it's better for everyone. Above all, avoid the "clothesline", when your leashed dog is sniffing bushes on one side of the trail and you are standing on the other-the rider can crash, your arm and wrist can be severely jerked, and your dog can be pulled right into the middle of the pile of falling bike and rider.
One last thing to keep in mind is that some people are scared to death of dogs. They get the same feelings when approached by a dog that you get hearing a rattlesnake buzz a foot from your leg. They grew up regarding "Lassie" as a horror movie. The trails are not a place for you to try desensitization therapy with these people or their children. You can't reason with emotional reactions, so just practice "defensive dog driving." When approaching other people on the trails, keep your dog at heel. If your dog is running ahead of you, recall him. People with a fear of dogs will spook as easily as those horses we just mentioned, so either leash your dog or keep him on his best behavior. Even if your dog has earned U.D. and Schutzhund III ratings, if someone asks you to leash your dog, comply cheerfully. Remember, you're acting as a lubricant in our society.
Thanks to Rick Teichler for his experiences (and irony).
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