Think before letting your dog off leash

This is going to be awkward. But I can’t help that. I’ve been wanting to write about this for quite some time now. If you’re a dog owner, I’m guessing you’ll have an opinion. Even if you aren’t a dog owner, you’ll probably have an opinion.

Oreo enjoys the Appalachian Trail up Barren Mountain off leash on Aug. 31, 2013.

So here it goes. Let’s tackle the age-old question, one that’s been around since humans befriended and domesticated canines thousands of years ago: “To leash or not to leash.”

Let’s start with a story.

In June, my sister and I drove to the coast to participate in the Harpswell Hiking Challenge, and my dog Oreo joined us. That day, the three of us hiked 10 trails and filmed our adventure for my blog. What doesn’t appear on the video is the trouble we ran into along the way.

Long story short, Oreo met a lot of fellow dogs that day, and many of them were off leash, even on the trails that required dogs to be on a leash.

Oreo, on the other hand, was on his leash all day. I had adopted him just a few weeks prior. I wasn’t sure of his temperament and I had no idea what he had experienced during the first seven and a half months of his life. But I was already quite fond of him, and I didn’t want him getting into any sort of trouble.

So here’s the scenario my sister and I ran into several times — a relatable experience for many of you, I’m sure. On one side, there’s Oreo, pulling on his leash, barking at a strange dog (or often two dogs). On the other side, there’s a dog, off leash, coming toward Oreo on the trail. The owner is somewhere behind, calling for his dog to come back. The dog doesn’t listen, he wants to check Oreo out.

Then there’s me. And here are my thoughts: Don’t bite that dog, Oreo. Be nice. Oh god. Can I scare this dog off? Should I get in the middle?

Then the dog’s owner calls out (and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this): “My dog is friendly!”

And in my distress, I can’t help but call back, “Well, mine isn’t.”

Rude? Maybe. But I don’t care. Indulge me as I hop onto my soapbox for a moment.

Owners of “friendly” dogs, here’s the thing: your dog may never hurt another dog or person, but that doesn’t mean the opposite can’t happen. If your dog is off leash, he can wander up to an unfriendly dog or another animal (need I say porcupine?). So you better be sure you can: 1. See your dog at all times, and 2. Train your dog to come when called (treats help).

(Sits down on the soapbox.)

I know how wonderful it is to allow your dog to enjoy a trail off leash, but you need to be careful. If you’re going to allow your dog this privilege, you need to train it to come when called, no matter what.

Oreo rolls on the moss beside the trail up Barren Mountain in Elliotsville on Aug. 31, 2013, a day he enjoyed hiking off leash.

Recently, I’ve let Oreo off leash during only two hiking trips — both in the Moosehead region on trails that were fairly remote and had no rules about dogs, leash or no leash. Derek (my boyfriend and hiking buddy) and I made sure to always keep Oreo in sight, and we often rewarded him with bits of jerky when he ran back to us. On the rare occasions we came across fellow hikers, we called Oreo back and clipped him onto his leash. It was a great way to hike, and Oreo had a blast running back and forth on the trail. So I understand wanting to let your dog run free.

However, if trail rules state “dogs allowed on leash” it means “dogs are only allowed on this trail if they are on a leash at all times.” And, in my opinion, the rule was not made to be broken. The rule was made by the landowners for a variety of reasons. Maybe there are a lot of porcupines in that area of the woods. Maybe there are ground-nesting birds near the trail — or rare and delicate plants. Whatever the reason, people should always be respectful of trail rules.

Dog owners can loop the leash around their foot while trying to take wildlife photos on a trail so their hands are free and steady.

Yes, I know it can be a pain. Believe me. I know. It’s especially a pain to hold onto Oreo’s leash when I’m trying to shoot video of a trail or take photos of wildlife. But I’ve developed a technique for all you photographers out there. Loop the end of the leash around your foot and step on it. Then your hands are free and steady, even if your dog is tugging at the leash.

Here’s another thing to consider: if the trail rules require dogs be on leash, other trail users expect dogs to be on leash. In fact, they may have chosen to walk on that trail because of the leash rule.

A sign in Rolland F. Perry City Forest.

Here’s a good example. In the Rolland F. Perry City Forest, on certain trails, you have to keep your dog on leash; while on other trails, you can let your dog off leash. I purposefully walk Oreo on the trails that require a leash because though I’ve trained him to come when called, I still worry about his reaction to strange dogs and I’d rather not take the risk. So if I’m putting in the effort to stay on the “leash trails,” people with unleashed dogs better put in the effort to stay on the “off leash trails.” At least, that’s how I see it.

Who else might purposefully stay on the “leash trails”? People who don’t like dogs. Gasp. Yes, such people exist.

I was at the farmer’s market in Brewer the other day with Derek and Oreo (on a leash). I walked up to a table to purchase some blackberries and the vendor kindly asked me to keep Oreo away from the booth. I handed Oreo off to Derek, who kept him moving through the market. At first, I thought the woman was worried Oreo might ruin her display, but as I purchased the berries, she apologized and confided that she had always been afraid of dogs, no matter what breed or size. She needn’t apologize to me. Everyone’s afraid of something, right? And I’m sure her fear is a lot more logical than my fear of spiders.

You know who else I see on the “leash trails”? Runners. Runners who may love dogs, just not when they’re running.

I could discuss this topic for hours, and I will likely write about it again, especially after I gain some insight from readers (just send an email with your stories and opinions to or have fun in the comment section at the bottom of the page).

Basically, my point is, you can’t overthink the leash question. There’s so much to consider. So before you unclip the leash from your dog’s collar, think about it.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at