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Hiking With Dogs: Dogs on Trails and the Polite Driver Rule

This blog post offers one simple tip to make hikes with dogs more enjoyable: Take the dog to the side of the trail when people pass.


But because it is June, a month where I’m thinking a lot about my Father (the month of Father’s Day, the anniversary of my Father’s death, the month of my parent’s anniversary, and my Dad’s birthday) and my Dad also loved dogs and hiking, I have a little digression.


When I was a teenager, my Dad taught me to drive in our huge orange Chevy truck. As you can imagine, I was not the coolest kid in school, however, to this day I am not intimidated by parallel parking since I took my driver’s ed test in that enormous truck.


The very first thing Dad taught me about how to drive was the Polite Driver Rule. Before our driving lessons began I had to unlock the passenger door and open the door for my Dad. I have to give my Dad props for this non-gendered rule of polite behavior. I also love that he taught me how to change a tire.


Recently, a friend asked me about tips on dogs and hiking. She belongs to The Mountaineers (I’m a huge fan of this Mountaineers book: Cascadia Field Guide). My friend is a bit afraid of dogs and loves the outdoors and hiking. It can be unnerving when strange dogs run up to you on the trail.


The first thing that came to mind was a habit I’ve gotten into while walking dogs that I think of as a Polite Driver Rule for dog walking. I suppose the “Polite Walker Rule" would work, too.


Whenever I see a person approaching, I step off to the side and begin to engage the dog in a few games with me. We do some behaviors they’ve learned like “look,” “touch,” “sit,” or “find it” and this keeps them occupied and focused on me until the person passes.


This Polite Walker game has multiple benefits:


a medium-sized brindle dog in the woods with a relaxed and happy expression
  • It gives me the opportunity for some mini-training sessions when out on walks. 

  • It teaches my dogs that when they see another person or dog, it’s a good time to look to me for another training session (instead of pulling forward, barking, or lunging).

  • It makes my dogs happy to see new people and dogs when out on walks. New person or dog = fun training session with treats. They don’t have to be worried about what a new person or dog might mean for them. They know what to expect.


This is a great tip for narrow hiking trails, but it’s also helpful for city streets and parks.


I have played this game with large dogs who would be likely to bark, lunge, and even bite a passerby they were unsure about, but I also often use the Polite Walker Rule with my little dogs.


The dogs I have now like to approach and sniff people. They are fairly relaxed and curious about it, but I’m aware that not all people are going to appreciate being sniffed even by a little dog. Also, although my dogs like to approach, when you reach for them they are likely to back away. They don’t like having their heads patted by new people on first meeting. In this case, "don't like" means they will flinch, tense, and back away.


I also know from my work in rescue, that any dog can have triggers that can make them upset. The most wiggly, relaxed pup can be fearful of something new or unexpected. It could be a smell, a way of moving, or an unusual shape. This is often something clear to the dog’s senses and experiences, but not evident to their human caregiver.


There’s also a phenomenon called, “trigger stacking,” where a dog might cope with things that are unnerving them at lower intensity (lip licks, yawns, drinking water, turning away, shake offs etc.) and then suddenly escalate with a snarl, snap, or bite over seemingly the same thing they were “doing OK” with before. They weren’t feeling completely relaxed and comfortable to begin with and got less and less at ease over time. 


Whenever I hear, “They were doing OK, and then…”, “it came out of nowhere,” or “suddenly snapped” one suspect is trigger-stacking.


This is the reason why sometimes a dog’s first bite incident happens at a big party where they are meeting lots of new people in a short amount of time and why it’s often a good idea to let dogs (especially rescues who haven’t met a lot of new people in that home) opt-out in a back room safe-space for social gatherings.


My default position is always to make the dog feel completely relaxed and at ease when they see new people (no opportunities for uncomfortable reaches towards cute little heads). 


The Polite Walker Rule really works. When the dog sees a new person and they instantly turn to me ready to train, I know we’ve practiced it well.


Like many dog training tips, the Polite Walker Rule can sound easier to execute than it may be when you are out and about with your dog.



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