Hiking with your dog

The Critter Exchange
By: Gail T. Fisher

Many dog owners want to take the dog along when they’re out in nature, taking a hike. There are three important things to keep in mind about hiking with your dog: Your dog, other hikers, and other dogs on the trail.

A reader writes: “Hi Gail, Recently I was hiking with my year-old black Lab on trails that are mostly deserted on weekdays. I bring a lead, but often let her run free, as she always comes when called. She is very friendly and adores people.

Twice recently, my dog met people hiking. As soon as they saw her, they acted aggressively, stomping their feet, waving their arms, and shouting, "Go away!!" or "Go Home!" The first time was a man and a woman. The second was a woman with two children. She told the children, "Yell real loud at the dog and stamp your feet the way we were told!" They all shouted at the top of their lungs and stomped their feet at my poor, who usually gets friendly pats from people. Understandably confused, she backed up and barked. She has never barked at anyone on or off the trails before.

I have heard of taking an aggressive approach with black bears, but are hikers being taught to do this to dogs? Is it supposed to work, or would most dogs react the way mine did - confused and defensive? This doesn't seem right to me. I am sure that if someone is steering people in the wrong direction, your column could do a great service by steering them right. Thanks for your time.”

I can’t believe someone is actually recommending this approach for dealing with unfamiliar dogs. Such offensive behavior could well provoke even a friendly dog to attack.

How different temperament dogs react
Dogs react in one of four ways when they see a stranger. Friendly dogs like the reader’s Lab, approach with affable intentions. An aloof dog ignores strangers. A fearful dog will avoid people. Finally, and least likely, is an aggressive dog – one that might attack if provoked. On a path in the woods where the dog can avoid the stranger, such an attack is unlikely.

Screaming, arm waving, yelling and stomping provokes different responses in each of these dogs. The friendly dog reacts as the reader’s adolescent did – confused, apprehensive, perhaps self-protective and defensive (backing up and barking). His experience is that people are usually nice – but these strangers are not. If this happens repeatedly, the friendly dog becomes mistrustful, developing one of the other three reactions.
The aloof dog might feel threatened by such aberrant behavior. If he is unable to ignore them, he might react aggressively. The fearful dog will run away. But with the aggressive dog, the hikers own behavior will cause precisely what they fear: the dog will feel threatened and is likely to attack. Whatever the dog’s temperament, hikers should never behave this way.

How to react to an unknown dog
It is natural for a frightened person, especially a child, to scream, wave their arms and run away, when frightened of a dog, but this is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Such behavior is far more likely to provoke an attack than standing still, pretending to “be a tree.”
Standing still rarely results in any behavior other than perhaps curious sniffing. And once the dog has investigated the person, it will likely move on.

On their website, the HSUS recommends: “When approached by a dog you don’t know, don’t run or scream. Instead, stand still with your hands at your sides and do not make direct eye contact with or speak to the dog. Teach children to ‘be a tree’ until a dog goes away and practice with a stuffed toy dog.”

The SPCA website says: “Do not try to outrun an attacking dog or use defense mechanisms such as kicking or screaming.....Stand still and present the side - not the front - of your body to the dog. It's a smaller target.”

Even more important than being a “smaller target,” standing sideways is less threatening than facing a dog straight on. Facing directly toward an unfamiliar dog might be interpreted as a challenge or threat.
Observe two unfamiliar dogs move toward each other, and you’ll see them curve as they approach. Then they stand sideways as they get acquainted – body posture that says, “I mean you no harm.”

Dog owner’s responsibility
Another issue when hiking is our responsibility as dog owners both to our dogs, and to the other hikers. Not everyone loves dogs, and some people are terrified of them. Hikers have a right to walk trails without fear of a dog – even a friendly adolescent Labrador retriever.
So owners have a responsibility to keep dogs under control either leashed or always in sight, and trained to come when called. Don’t let them to approach strangers unless the hiker says it’s OK for your dog to approach. This creates an environment where everyone – dog hater, dog lover and dog – can share the trail.

And finally – don’t forget your dog. I got the following note from a friend:

Hi Gail, “As you know, I work at the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center in Campton and give a lot of hiking advice. We often have people wanting to hike with a dog. I tell them that the dog should be leashed or kept very close, the hiker keeping a sharp eye on them. Even the best-trained dog can stray, get interested in something or get spooked by a bear etc. Every week someone posts a sign for a dog lost on some trail in the forest.

The other problem is unprepared hikers. Last May, a group of young hikers was planning to hike one of the hardest trails – a nine-hour hike for the best hiker. They had an eight-month-old Rottie puppy. I tried to tell them that this was too difficult a hike for a puppy, even if they walk with him every day. Hiking the White Mountains is not like a stroll in the park. One group this summer got to the top of a 4000 ft peak with a dog and couldn't get down. They had no water, (and no brains). Thanks for letting me vent.”

This note says it all! How sad for a beautiful day hike to turn tragic by losing your dog. And force-marching a puppy or dog is cruel. A walk in the country may seem like a fun day for your dog, but unless the dog is conditioned for strenuous exercise, it is inhumane to force him to hike mountain trails for hours on end. Strained muscles, bloody feet, and exhaustion are the milder dangers. Heat stroke (even in cool weather) and collapse are real possibilities.

Carry ample water, a bowl, food if you’re camping out, and first aid treatment such as bandage material for cut pads and feet. If your dog is strong enough and has been properly conditioned to it, he can carry his own supplies in a dog backpack. Never allow a dog to run free in the backpack, and don’t overload him.

We always hope that people will use common sense. Sadly, many don’t. Listening to people in the know, like my friend in Campton, can prevent tragedies.


Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved. http://www.alldogsgym.com
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