A walk on the wild side: Exploring the forest with your dog

A German Shepard poses against the view after a hike to a mountain ridge.

It’s a bright cool morning when a hiker arrives at the trailhead with great anticipation. The trail ahead is lined with huge trees towering over the cerulean sky. The only thing that could possibly make the experience better, for many recreation users, is to have their canine best friend along for the adventure.

Dogs are welcome in most areas throughout our National Forests, but there are some simple guidelines we ask dog owners to follow to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all who use these great public resources, including their furry friends.

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The underlying rule for people bringing their dogs into “developed recreation” sites — that means areas designated as trail heads, campgrounds, parking lots, interpretive trails, visitor centers, and so on — is that dogs need to be a leash six feet in length or shorter, or restrained in some other way, such as a crate or carrying case.

In most other forest areas— including areas of trails beyond the trailhead or outside a developed recreation area — there are typically no leash requirements.

That doesn’t mean owners are relieved of responsibility for their animal, or that an off-leash walk is recommended, or even safe for your dog.

“Know your dog, but also recognize that the changed environment can impact your dog in different ways. You can’t control the environment or the possible sensory stimulation your dog may experience on the trail,” Tanya Roberts, Manager of Training and Behavior at Oregon Humane Society, said. “It’s always best to keep your dog on a leash when you’re on an unfamiliar trail.”

Some campers aren’t dog lovers; they may have phobias or allergies that prevent them from being happy to meet an unrestrained pet.

“Learn as much about trails and campgrounds as you can before you bring your dog. Steep terrain, narrow trails, steel mesh bridges, and log climbs can make the hike very difficult for your dog,” Roberts said.

When hiking, uncontrolled dogs may wander off a path and encounter wildlife, with disastrous results for the animal or themselves.

Some dogs have little fear of heights; in areas with cliffs, gulches, canyons, caves, or big rocks, they may slip under railings or over a steep drop and get hurt — or worse.

Another way to protect your pet: Before heading outdoors, ensure all vaccinations are up-to-date and make sure you’re using flea and tick control. Make sure dogs are both wearing identification tags on their collar and are microchipped, in case they get lost. Bringing a recent photo is also good idea, so you can show it to others campers or a rangers if your dog does go missing.

In some forests, you may encounter areas that restrict access to domesticated animals outside of developed recreation sites. These restrictions may be in place to protect watershed health, municipal water systems, sensitive plant species, or other natural resources that could be damaged. For example, restrictions are in place on some parts of the Deschutes National Forest to protect the City of Bend’s municipal water supply.

“Bottom line, it comes down to being respectful to others, wildlife, and keeping your dog safe,” Logan Free, the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s developed recreation program manager, said.

Free is an avid hiker and dog owner, and enjoys helping others enjoy the outdoors successfully with their dogs.

Yielding on trails is a common friction point among recreation users, he said.

“A basic etiquette rule I’ve heard is ‘Wheels yield to heels,’ where bikers and OHVers yield to all other users, while hikers yield to horseback riders,” Free said. “Restrain your dog when others try passing and yield to others, as you don’t know if other hikers would enjoy Fluffy jumping up to greet them.”

Keeping your leashed on trails is recommended, even if it’s not required, Roberts said.

Maintaining a safe distance between your dog and other trail users, including those on bikes or horseback, protects not only other users but also your pet.

“It’s just not worth the risk of having your dog off leash. It could become a life or death situation if your dog runs around a corner on a trail and startles a horse. This can be very dangerous both for your dog and for the horseback rider,” she said.

While some dog owners are confident allowing their dog to roam off-leash because their pet is trained to follow voice commands, even well-trained dogs can behave unpredictably — especially in an unfamiliar area, Roberts said.

“Some people are concerned that their dogs won’t get as much exercise if they stay on a leash, but usually with all the new sensory input, dogs will come home very tired anyway,” she said.

Another source of human-dog conflicts are areas around developed recreation sites. Even leashed, a dog’s presence can interfere with activities like bird watching. Barking is also a common source of friction between dog owners and other visitors.

“The National Forests are for everyone to enjoy. If people encounter dogs that are interfering with their ability to enjoy public lands, a polite conversation with the dog owner is a good first step, if the issue isn’t serious or threatening; followed by a call to your local ranger district office if the problems persist, and a call to law enforcement if the dog is aggressive,” Free said.

If you encounter other dog owners, remember that they also may prefer your dog be leashed around their pet, Roberts said.

“There may be lots of possible reasons. Maybe a dog is recovering from surgery, and having other dogs jump on them could do real damage,” Roberts said.

And sometimes, the best way to ensure your dog enjoys your time outdoors is to leave them at home.

Before taking your dog on a hike, take the weather, and the distance and terrain into account, Roberts said.

“Watch out for heat,” she said. “Put your hand down on the terrain: if it’s uncomfortable for you to put down pressure on the ground because of heat or sharp terrain, it will probably also be for your dog.”

If your dog is younger, older, or hasn’t hiked before, start with shorter hikes so dogs can get familiar with the environment, strengthen supporting muscles, and toughen up the pads on their feet.

“Get your dogs’ heart checked by a veterinarian before attempting any hiking. Carry a first aid kit, especially if you have a big dog who you won’t be able to carry back to your car. With elderly dogs, it’s especially important that you know what the dog will encounter along the trail and how difficult it will be,” Roberts said.

For pet safety tips, first-aid, and more information about responsible recreation with dogs on National Forests, check out the FAQ at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5351574.pdf.

Before your visit, contact the local Ranger district office for specific local considerations or recommendations.

And don’t forget to scoop your dog’s poop! “Leave no trace” should be your goal for pets (and people, too). Dog feces can take months to decompose, and may carry diseases and parasites that are dangerous to wildlife and contaminate water that humans rely on, as well.

“It’s lovely to see people being respectful and being aware of how their dogs may be impacting others around them,” Roberts said. “We need to encourage people to do things right.”


Source Information: Chris Bentley is the Website and Social Media Manager for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement. He doesn’t have a dog… yet.

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