On Dogs & Trails

Many trail runners have running dogs these days, and often not for the traditional South African "guard dog" element, but rather for their active companionship and shared love of the outdoors. As a result of this "canine-centric" movement, more beaches, parks and trail networks in South Africa are becoming pet-friendly destinations. Being a veterinarian, dog owner and trail user myself, I fully support this initiative which helps to meet dogs' exercise requirements, reduces time spent alone at home, and enhances both human and dog quality of life. But as always, with every right (or in this case privilege) comes responsibility. So what exactly are the responsibilities of the trail dog owner on public trails, and how should other users respond to dogs?

Starting with the basics, if your dog defecates on a trail, the park grass or the beach, the least you can do is carry the necessary to pick it up and dispose of it sensibly. If you thought there was nothing worse than stepping in dog mess, try accidentally cycling through it! The splatterings from your front wheel across your face leave much to be desired... If running in a nature reserve with natural vegetation alongside the trails, it is acceptable to disperse your pups droppings into the long grass for nature to decompose. If the area you frequent has Doggy Pooh Worm Farms, take the time to locate the nearest one and bin the faeces there. For other trail users, do not throw your rubbish into these worm farms - worms, unsurprisingly, do not compost plastic, and general waste will render the micro-biome unsuitable for decomposition and consequently a lost cause.

The second point relates to behaviour. Running unleashed is undoubtedly every dog's dream, but unfortunately for some it's not a reality. If your dog is friendly with all other people and dogs, AND has a perfect recall, it's one of the lucky ones that may be allowed off-leash freedom where permitted. What this means is that on your call or whistle, you are 100% certain that your dog will immediately halt its probably mischievous endeavours and return to your side. For many dogs the second part of this equation doesn't apply, and their owners don't understand the importance. But here's my reasoning: every dog, even unfriendly or poorly socialised, deserves trail time. Such owners are generally aware of their dog's shortfalls and are good at keeping them leashed and moving out the way for other trail users. The problem comes when one over-enthusiastic pup approaches said potentially aggressive/ nervous/ fearful dog, adamantly ignores everyone's shouts of caution and ends up bitten. Whose fault is this? Friendly dog's owner... Be considerate by keeping your dogs on retractable leashes if their obedience is not up to scratch.

Then, the somewhat controversial topic of wildlife... Many will state the socially acceptable "dogs should not chase game," while others run their hunting dogs off-leash, knowing full well the strength of the hunting instinct and a dog's apparent loss of hearing once scent or sight of prey animal is detected. Although I definitely do not advocate the chasing of any wildlife, I realize there are scenarios where it is acceptable to allow dogs to be dogs. Where animals can be chased into a fence or cornered by man-made structures, there is no question - your dogs should not be able or allowed to give chase. The fun pursuit of the odd guineafowl or hare, however, is usually a harmless game in which many dogs delight and for which hunting dogs live. If you have a pack that you allow to run free, always ensure that no wildlife can come to harm as a result. On the same note, for the safety of your dog, be aware of road traffic and potentially dangerous game such as zebra and wildebeest. Many a canine, wild and domestic, has come off second best against an angry antelope!

Communication is key in most aspects of life, and out on the trails is no different. If your dog is aggressive, let others know timeously. And if someone informs of this, do the right thing and call your dogs away. It is always better to avoid conflict than have to deal with the consequences. Other trail users, especially mountain bikers who tend to move more quickly and can surprise a dog from behind, should always shout ahead. This gives runners the opportunity to call or hold dogs that may be unpredictable around bikes. If riding past a dog, take a few seconds extra to slow down and give a wide berth. You may be preventing a collision that would injure both you and a dog unnecessarily.

At the end of the day, it all really comes down to awareness, consideration and communication. Dog owners should always be aware of their dog’s whereabouts, and also know the sensitivity status of the vegetation and local species in the area through which they are moving. An ethos of conservation, the sharing of South Africa's amazing natural spaces with like-minded people, and the ultimate goal of everybody, canines included, enjoying outdoor exercise in a safe and sustainable way will only make our world a better place!