Trail Etiquette Tips for Dog Owners – by Dr John Sudduth

10 Guidelines I Follow as a Veterinarian and Dog Owner When I Use the Trails

  1. Realize that Dog Ownership is Voluntary. Having a dog is one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had. And while that is true, we all must realize that dog ownership is also voluntary and a big responsibility. Not only do you have the new responsibility to care for a living, breathing companion that has needs, it is also true that we are now responsible for their behavior, how they interact with society, other dogs and their environment. Furthermore, it also means that due to their presence, my personal space and freedom is also impacted. Before getting a dog you would be wise to consider whether or not your personal lifestyle and freedom is ready and willing to accept those restrictions and responsibilities. There are many dog owners that get caught up in the cuteness of the moment but do not consider the far-reaching responsibilities that lie ahead. Therefore, taking all these aspects into consideration, choose soberly and wisely.
  2. Consider Carefully Whether Your Dog is Physically and Behaviorally Suited for Trail Running. In some cases, you as a dog guardian may be putting them and yourself at risk for unintended consequences. If your dog shows fear or aggressive tendencies, and/or ignores recall attempts, you must take this into consideration and choose the right location and right time of day when altercations are less likely to happen.
  3. Accept the high responsibility to manage your particular dog with its unique behavioral and physical capabilities and limitations. Avoid conflicts at all costs. What this means is that as a responsible, courteous citizen, you are constantly on the lookout for potential conflict between humans, other dogs and wildlife. Many times while out on the trail we may be unaware of what is around the bend. Leash laws exist for a reason. Following the rules means fewer conflicts and can prevent injury to yourself, your loved ones and others. The standard that must apply before a dog can be considered off leash is recall 100% of the time. If you have to recall more than once, then your dog should not be allowed off leash. This, of course requires training and when it comes to your dog, school is never out for the summer! Constant training is required.
  4. Being a responsible trail user also means managing our children and us in responsible ways. Remember it’s not just about managing our dogs responsibly, it also means we check our own behavior and that of our children and observe responsible ways to interact with the environment, other people and dogs. Here are a few tips:  1) Teach your children to avoid running up to unfamiliar dogs to pet them. Always ask permission from the owner before attempting this and teach your kiddos to do the same.  2) Owners should always communicate loudly and clearly whether permission to touch, pet or cuddle your dog is granted. Always ask before you assume that the owner and the dog are okay with approaching them. Some people have the inherent belief that all dogs exist to be petted and hugged. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Stay back”, “he is not friendly”, should be respected by all parties. Children must be under control of their guardian. Perhaps, “It’s okay, you can pet him” could be another clear guideline. But all guidelines should be communicated loudly and without ambiguity. Furthermore, not all people and their particular dog think it cute or okay to allow another dog to run up to them, sniff, lick or jump on or play. Eventually, allowing this may come back to bite you and/or your dog. Both parties should agree before allowing this behavior to occur.
  5. Choose the Right Equipment for Trail Use with Your Dog. A strong, sturdy, non-retractable lead is required for best control. Slip your hand through the loop so you don’t loose your grip. Harnesses may give owners better control and Gentle Leaders and muzzles may be appropriate for some dogs.
  6. Training is Not Optional and is On-going. Training your people (including children) and your dog are both necessary for a more successful and positive experience out on the trail. Enroll your dog in a training class and realize that one training class is perfection not made. It requires on-going daily effort for a successful outcome. It’s a responsibility of time and money that you accepted when you chose to get a dog. But of course it’s not all drudgery. Nothing is more fun and pleasant than a well-behaved, well-adjusted dog that obeys the rules. Your dog wants leadership. Provide it for them in kind, positive and fun ways.
  7. It’s Our Choice and Responsibility to Respect the Environment and Leave No Trace. Realize that we all contribute to the environment that we create. No one wants to live in a dirty, filthy, disease-ridden environment. That is why we have laws that prohibit littering and why we incessantly preach owners to pick up their dog’s poop and carry it out, not leave in a bag along the trail for someone else to do it. It’s why we prepare appropriately before we use the trails and ask government to provide the appropriate infrastructure of bathroom facilities. It’s why we are willing and glad to contribute our tax dollars to provide adequate maintenance of our parks and trail system for everyone’s benefit. We will live in the environment we create. Act responsibly for a more positive experience.
  8. We Prepare to Adequately Protect Ourselves in the Event of a Conflict with Other Dogs. When I run, bike or hike, I always carry a deterrent in the form of a small supersonic horn that can be used if my dog or I are being charged by an unknown dog. A blast from the horn is enough to deter most (but not all) situations. Just remember to forearm yourself before a potential conflict arises, if possible. If a dog charges, you have a few seconds to react. I run or bike with a horn easily accessible and put my thumb on the trigger as I approach a potential conflict. That’s the only way you have time to react. Other forms of deterrents include pepper spray and the El Paso County Control Officers carry a Zap Taser. I have never used either (I have both), but have used the supersonic horn several times to ward off approaching and charging dogs. Usually, you cannot outrun or out bike a dog (there is always exceptions but don’t bet on it).
  9. In the event of conflict, avoid placing your hands, legs and arms in the way of injury. Use the horn deterrent, pepper spray or Zap Taser as a first line defense. If you ignore this it is likely that everyone goes to the ER – people and animals.
  10. Know the telephone number of the Animal Control Department. If you call 911 they will delay immediate access by transferring the call. Program this on your phone. Take pictures as appropriate and contact the appropriate department in your community. Usually this is Animal Control. If you have not done this, you need to do this now before getting out on the trail again.
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