Why Go Hiking with Dogs off Leash?

Hiking in Texas with my dog is one of my favorite activities. I often see unique landscapes filled with hills, valleys, limestone, drought resistant trees, cactus and dry creek beds. My girl, Abbey, sees squirrels, deer, armadillos, lizards, and dog poop left festering along the trails. We go hiking in San Antonio every week, and continue to improve our distance. The further we travel and more often we hike, the more we see dogs off leash.

Hiking with dogs off leash is too risky and unsafe.

Why would anyone go hiking without a leash? Do they believe leashes are difficult, cumbersome, or too restrictive? I’m sure they have their reasons, but hiking without a leash is unsafe, and illegal in many cities.

I met a woman recently who had lost one of her dogs at a park. The woman was hiking with her three dogs off leash. One of her dogs got spooked and ran off. The woman told me her dog never ran off before. We searched for hours to find the poor girl who suffered a minor cut, plus the stress of the ordeal.

The woman admitted her mistake to me although I offered no judgement. She realized too late that hiking without a leash was not the safest choice. Luckily her dog was found, but a leash would have prevented the incident. A leash keeps us in control while keeping our dogs safer.

Leash Laws in San Antonio, Texas

Here in San Antonio we have an ordinance requiring dogs to be on a six foot leash while in public. The signs posted at the state and city parks are hard to miss. They typically read “ pets must be on leash at all times”. Hiking without a leash is illegal. The laws may be different in your area, but most major cities have leash laws.

Working dogs and hunting dogs may be exempt. You can read more about our thoughts on service dogs later.

If you plan to go hiking with dogs off leash, the responsible thing to do is research. There are some locations where dogs are allowed to roam off leash as long as the owner is in control. However, it may be riskier than you think. Several potential scenarios make it unsafe to hike while off leash.

Dogs have a high prey drive even when not off leash.

High Prey Drive in Dogs

Many dogs have a strong desire to chase smaller animals. This behavior is instinctual. It is possible to control this instinct, but it takes a lot of training depending on the dog. I’m not a professional dog trainer, and won’t pretend to be an expert. Abbey has a very high prey drive. She’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback, and her ancestors are known for hunting lions.

Abbey has a strong desire to chase cats, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, armadillos, rabbits, ducks, opossum and deer. It takes consistent work on a daily basis to redirect her behavior. If I were to relinquish control to her, she would run off and who knows what would happen. She might get lost, hurt, or cause another animal harm. Why risk either of those scenarios?

Venomous Snakes and Wild Animals

In Texas, we have at least four types of venomous snakes. These snakes can be around the trails at any given time. Although they do not act aggressively toward humans, they will bite when stepped on, or cornered. It’s easier to keep your dog away from a snake if she is on a leash. A dog hiking without a leash could more easily step on, or chase a snake. A bite from a venomous snake can be deadly if not quickly treated.

Most wild animals will avoid you while hiking. However, some are less easy to intimidate, and may even pose a threat. You may cross paths with coyotes, bobcats, wild hogs, and even a mountain lion on some trails in Texas. If your dog is hiking without a leash she will be much more difficult to protect, or likely to run if threatened. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my dog by my side, and under my control rather than in a fight, or being chased.

Horseback riders approach with a dog off leash.

Traffic on the Trail

Every trail has specific rules, and may be designated for certain users. Some trails are dog friendly and others are not. In some cases hikers are allowed, but bikers are not. Other trails allow all of the above and more. It’s important to know what else you may encounter on a trail.

Every day it seems like we come across dogs off leash in a park and city where they are mandatory. If a dog hiking without a leash approaches we must hold position. It’s impossible to determine the dogs intentions, or destination while he’s alone. Usually the owner is not far behind and the dog is curious about Abbey. However, we don’t know he is not a stray, or a threat until he obeys the call of his owner. On the other hand, the owner doesn’t know my dog is not a threat when his dog is near because he and his dog are not together.

Bicycles and horses are more concerning forms of traffic. Many trails allow hiking and biking, while others allow horseback riding as well. If you take a dog hiking without a leash, how can you ensure he will not be struck by a bike, or a horse? Some dogs may heel at their owners side on the trail, but rarely is this the case.

Dogs are curious animals. They enjoy tracking, hunting, chasing and playing. Dogs are not too concerned about traffic. Bikers and horseback riders shouldn’t be responsible for avoiding loose dogs on the trail.

Having Dogs off Leash is too Risky

Many dog parks allow dogs to run and play off leash. Some people question the safety of dog parks. Whether they are safe or not is a separate topic for discussion. However, dog parks do provide a means to exercise and socialize without the restriction of a leash. We have visited 15 this year in the San Antonio area, and have found the best dog parks to visit.

I have forgotten a leash a couple of times. Rather than skipping the hike, or hiking without a leash, I used the strap which serves as a zip line in the back of our vehicle. If you forget a leash, try making a leash out of something you do have. You can also plan ahead by purchasing some hiking gear we recommend on our Shop Page.

There is a reason we have leash laws in many locations. Hiking without a leash can be unsafe for the dog, and for others. Yes, dogs are our loyal, loving friends, but they also act out of instinct and without caution. Most dogs are not trained well enough to be off leash. Why risk it?

I’m a certified personal trainer in San Antonio. After adopting Abbey, I created Places for Pups to help you get outside, exercise with your dog and have fun doing it. We have mastered hiking in Texas Hill Country. Though we emerge from the woods unharmed, we are not responsible for you or your pets. You are solely responsible for trying exercises, or places discussed on this site. Grab the best hiking gear and go dog friendly.  I wish you good fortune on the trails to come.

David Earley


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