Dog-Friendly Trails

Photo | Hope Caplan Lotus, a black Lab, enjoys walking the trail in Azalea Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Photo | Hope Caplan
Lotus, a black Lab, enjoys walking the trail in Azalea Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I don’t have a dog, but I love my family’s canine members—Lilly, a Golden Retriever, and Lotus, a black Lab. Perhaps this is the reason I was attracted to a particular guidebook displayed in the California Welcome Center in El Dorado Hills, California, a few months ago. “Dog-Friendly Trails for All Seasons”* piqued my curiosity. What makes a hiking trail friendly to dogs? I marveled that an entire book had been devoted to this subject. I picked up the book and read the subtitle “In California’s Foothills and the Sierra Nevada.” I looked out the window and in the distance were those same foothills where relatives had told me of encounters with rattlesnakes, bears and mountain lions.

The introduction revealed how little I know about dog ownership in general and how helpful a description of dog-friendly trails would be for California tourists as well as for local residents. Safety was only one topic covered. Some of the contents would be self-evident to seasoned hikers who bring their dogs along with them on a trail. But for me, it was a revelation to learn that “A dog’s first means of cooling itself is through its paws (panting is its secondary means).” Walking on hot asphalt or concrete is extremely painful for dogs. Consequently, during hot weather a dirt trail in a cooler area helps make it dog-friendly.

I learned other considerations from my friend Caro, who is a veteran hiker and the owner of a lively young beagle. “Know your dog,” was her top priority advice. She agreed with the author of the guidebook that a trail may not be the best place for an aggressive dog that is difficult to control, even on a leash. In understanding her beagle’s nature, Caro also pointed out that she has to leash Dorsey whenever the beagle is outside because her pet’s uncontrollable instinct is to chase rabbits and other small prey. She could call to her forever and her beagle would never return—Dorsey would joyfully continue chasing rabbits ad infinitum.

My friend told me that she doesn’t like a trail that has become overgrown with weeds and plants like poison oak. A dog can brush against this plant and carry the oils on its coat. If you then touch the dog’s coat, you can develop a rash. Caro added that weather is a factor when choosing the best trail. She wouldn’t hike with her dog just after a rainstorm—the trail would be muddy and cluttered with fallen limbs and other debris.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors that determine the definition of a “dog-friendly trail.” “But we don’t use that term,” said Clara Gouin of the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department. “We like to think that all our trails are friendly to dogs if their owners follow the rules.” She recommended the Patuxent Trail that follows the Little Patuxent River in Howard County, the C&O Canal towpath that begins in Georgetown and finally ends in western Maryland, the historic rail/trails that follow extinct railroad lines and yet have preserved railroad tracks through parts of Maryland and elsewhere. The Maryland State Department of Natural Resources, Gouin told me, is a good source for obtaining detailed maps of certain hiking trails throughout the state. You might try their website:

A few rails-to-trails in our region are the Rock Creek Trail in Silver Spring, which is multi-use and considered a great place for hikers and their dogs; the Patuxent Branch Trail in Columbia, which is included in the historic Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; and the Grist Mill Trail at Patapsco Valley State Park in Catonsville.

My friend Caro said the main thing about “dog-friendly trails” is to be safe, comfortable, considerate, and for both of you to love exercising in a place of natural beauty.

   *By Debbi Preston.. authorhouse, Bloomington, IN, 2011.