Trails in the woods seem like a good place to let your dog off the leash.
It’s the great outdoors, an environment that inspires an urge for freedom. It’s remote, away from cars and sidewalks. On lightly-traveled trails there sometimes are few other people and dogs to encounter. And you may feel confident that your dog is under voice command and will always come when called.
But even if all those things are true, there are good reasons for keeping your dog on a leash, even in the wilderness.
In Washington state parks, there is an $87 ticket for unleashed dogs. In the national forest, leashes are required for dogs on interpretive trails and recreation areas.
Dogs aren’t allowed at all on trails in Mt. Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park and only in limited areas in North Cascades National Park.
And dogs must almost always be leashed on trails in wilderness areas.
For one thing, it’s safer for your dog.
Your dog might be as friendly as Old Yeller, but he or she might amble up to a much less friendly animal and get attacked.
And there are hazards in the forest for which your dog can be unprepared.
“We have lost two dogs this year who were off-leash,” said a ranger at Wallace Falls State Park. “They went under the railings and fell and probably expired going over the falls.”
Dogs fall, jump into rivers and get swept away, and fall through iced-over lakes and snow bridges.
But dogs also can pose a nuisance in the woods.
“They chase animals,” said the ranger at Wallace Falls.
Dogs are natural predators and often find it nigh on irresistible to chase everything from squirrels to deer, and it is never the goal of a good outdoors-person to bring terror to the lives of wildlife.
And an animal-chasing dog leads to injury for its owner more often than one might think. One cause of bear attack is actually unleashed dogs. A dog chases a bear, the bear turns and chases the dog, and the dog in fright runs to its owner.
Sometimes that results in a dead dog, as in the case of Toby, a labrador retriever in Minnesota who was off-leash while his owner was picking mushrooms, when the owner noticed a family of black bears and ordered Toby to stay.
Toby didn’t. Instead, he disappeared into the brush, and a few minutes later reappeared, chased by a mother bear and running straight for his owner. The bear attacked the dog about 10 yards from the man, which gave the man enough time to escape into a building. Toby survived a few days with grievous wounds but ultimately died.
He was luckier than a woman in the same area two years early who was herself attacked after her unleashed dog chased two baby bears.
And any dog owner who has ever seen his or her beloved pet with a face full of porcupine quills or covered in skunk spray can attest to the misery that chasing strange animals can cause.
Pets also get lost, even on trails, if they wander too far from their people.
But also, leashing dogs is an etiquette issue. You might know your dog to be harmless, but other hikers don’t have any reason to trust you or your dog, and being approached by an unleashed dog is unnerving for many.
If the other hiker has a responsibly-leashed dog and your dog is not leashed, the other dog can feel threatened and lunge.
Finally, in alpine areas, vegetation is often very delicate, which is why humans are asked to stay on trails. When you stop to rest, your dog can tear up a fair amount of cryptobiotic crust.
If you really must hike with your dog off-leash, most National Forest trails are leash-optional. When planning a hike, call the ranger station nearest to your destination to inquire about leash laws. Or pick up a copy of the Western Washington Mountaineers Best Hikes with Dogs book.
Then, be absolutely sure you have your dog under voice control.
When passing other hikers, stand to the side of the trail and hold your dog by the collar. Never expect other hikers to take your word that your dog is friendly. And never assume that everyone in the woods is not allergic to dogs. Don’t let your dog run up and greet other dogs. And if you can’t keep your dog from chasing animals, leash your pet or don’t bring it.
Pack pet waste out with you or bury it as you would human waste.
Bring a leash, even if you don’t plan to use it, water and a bowl, dog food and treats, and plastic bags and/or trowels for dealing with your pet’s waste. Also, make sure your dog has an ID tag on and have first aid supplies for your dog as well as yourself.