I like to hike, and I have two large dogs (German Shepherd, Presa Canario).

After a long hike I look reasonably homeless (long hair, unshaven, muddy). Combined with two large, potentially dangerous dogs, it might scare off some people.

How can I make sure we do not scare people / make them more comfortable meeting us on the trail?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Comments are also not for answering - I have just deleted 9 comments that should have been answers.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 18:19
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    Trouble is, two large dogs ARE a potential hazard and other people would be well advised to give you some space. Accept this.
    – Laurence
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 12:52
  • A Vote to Close because the answers will be Opinion based? If you were leading two black bears, no one would say this Q was opinion based!
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 15:14

12 Answers 12


Couple suggestions for meeting people on the trail with dogs,

  • Keep the dogs leashed.
  • When passing people put the dogs on the opposite side of yourself so that you are between the dogs and the people.
  • Pull off to the side and have the dogs sit, as this demonstrates that you have control over the dogs and they will listen to you.
  • Talk with the people you meet, ask the normal social questions like
    • How is your day?
    • How long have you been out for?
    • Where have you been?
  • Smile and generally be friendly towards people.
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    Please omit the "Where have you been?" part of your social interaction. That is going to set me more on edge, not put me at ease. It sounds "stalker-ish", which is especially bad in OP's case where you look ragged.
    – Loduwijk
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 21:52
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    @Aaron Each culture and region is different. Those questions would be pushing it for me, but I might instead ask, "Anything interesting ahead on the trail?" if I chose to ask anything at all. At any rate, you'd be expected to alter your interaction to fit your culture and region, following the suggestion, "...ask the normal social questions..."
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 13:01
  • When I see somebody pulling their dogs to the side, I'm thinking that the dog might be aggressive so there is a need to stay away from them. I think you can just tell that dogs are good. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 15:33
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    @akostadinov You absolutely can't "just tell" how a dog will react. I love dogs, would never question their place on a trail, and have a dog who's never had a problem with people. And yet, I still always at least put her on the side away from oncomers, and if she seems at all nervous or excited, I'll make her sit.
    – Auspex
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:14
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    @akostadinov no way. I've been bitten after owners told me "oh, our dogs are nice, they don't bite". Saying "oh they're good" would make me MORE nervous. Around here, pulling even tiny dogs to the side is just common courtesy and would never been seen as an indication that the dogs are aggressive. There are a lot of dogs where i live though.
    – user14347
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 17:02

As someone who is fine with dogs, I'm saddened that my son was nipped by a puppy when he was very young and is now very nervous when needing to walk past dogs, and there are lots of strays where I live. In time, I hope to help him react to dogs in a different way, but right now he is afraid of them.

If you met him with your dogs, there is nothing you can do that will change that. As a dog owner and lover, that might not sit very comfortably with you. But you would only be able to minimise his exposure and fear towards your dogs.

Charlie gives good advice on showing you have control, but if you stopped to talk to my son whilst your dogs were obediently sitting by your side, he'd still be scared. If you recognised that and asked "Are you scared by my dogs?" and were prepared to cheerily move on without taking it personally if the answer was "Yes", then I would say you've done all you reasonably can.

I know I'm focussing on the title of the question, because the details show you're looking to accomplish something a bit different, but I wanted to make the point: some people are just afraid of dogs.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 7:15

Though you don't actually state it, I get the impression you normally let your dogs roam free on your hikes. If this is correct, then you are taking a very large risk with other people's health and welfare.

Both your dogs are large and very capable of inflicting significant injury on even an adult human. Dogs will react violently if they feel threatened or if their hunting instinct is aroused. You cannot predict with certainty how your dog is going to react if someone suddenly comes round the bend. Perhaps they are laughing loudly, or they suddenly scream because a bee flew into their hair, or maybe they are bleeding from a scratch. Any tiny thing could surprise the tiny mind of a dog and trigger its primal reflex - you will not be able to predict this or be able to control it with a verbal command, no matter how much you think you know your dogs.

Even if your dog only wants to be friendly it can still injure a person. As you probably have observed, dogs show affection by muzzle-licking. Since our muzzles are high up on our bodies, dogs have to leap up on us to reach them. A large dog like one of yours, will send a child flying if it leaps on it at speed.

I understand you want to live the free life of roaming the hills with your trusty doggie companions but the reality is that you risk serious injury to some innocent passer-by. Please reflect on this and leash your dogs.


The most important thing is keeping all dogs on-leash in public areas. Technically, you can't make any person not feel afraid. But a leash will do a lot to reassure someone who is frightened or concerned, so they know they can maintain a physical distance according to their comfort level.

Some folks, such as myself, are highly allergic to dogs. Many times, I have been completely accosted by off-leash dogs and told by their owner, "Don't worry, they're friendly" as if that makes it all okay. I love dogs, but as you might imagine, it's really frustrating to have to cut an excursion short to go shower off the allergens and change clothes before I get (too) sick. In my case, the fact that your dogs are extra-friendly just means they'll be even better at covering me with the stuff that will force me to go home sick instead of enjoying my day off. :\

I've also known some people who have had a traumatic experience with a dog, and sadly, are going to be afraid of any dog no matter how sweet or friendly. Some people are autistic and just don't like to be touched by anyone. Young children may be startled to encounter an unfamiliar dog, and become terrified when they realize there is nothing to stop it from jumping on them if they back away. Etc., etc.

In all of these cases, it's not a personal thing against you and your dogs -- honest! So please don't take it that way. There are just some people who, for whatever reason, won't want to get up close and personal with your dogs -- and that's okay. There's no need for you to prove how friendly your dogs really are, or for us to explain why we don't want physical contact. For people like us, the best reassurance of all is that your pups are on-leash, so that we are free to initiate contact (or not) on our own terms, as our needs allow.


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    My dogs are typically on leash. Not crazy scared this is a loaded weapon type of control, but not willing to start looking for them "somewhere over that hill" either. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 17:22
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    @Censoredtoprotecttheguilty I'm glad that your dogs are typically on a leash. Aside from the possible dangers to other people, even big dogs can be done in by relatively small animals in the wild. I've been there when friends had to launch into flying tackles of their dogs when they went for a porcupine or a badger. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 22:00
  • Nobody needs to "launch into flying tackles" to protect their dogs from porcupines. Porcupines are not that dangerous; but having had quills removed from me I'd far rather let the dog learn the hard way. Badgers, otoh...
    – Auspex
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:22

Some more points in addition mainly to @CharlieBrumbaugh's answer:

Both in Central Europe (where I'm from) and traveling Canada I've only once in my life encountered a "visibly" and truly homeless person in the "outdoors" (actually just outside my home). All other encounters with homeless persons I personally had took place in cities and typically quite downtown. From that observation: I'd say the risk of confusion with homeless person would be maybe highest at a train station on the way home.

The one point that would make me wary (both outdoors and in town) would be beer/alcohol smell.

Other than that, a friendly grinning muddy backpacker saying "Hi" with happy muddy tired dogs would not rise a hobo impression with me. Hiking backpack and homeless person's backpack also typically look somewhat different, even if the hiker had to resort to plastic bags. If you want to make sure, let a GPS device dangle visibly from your shoulder strap ;-)

About the dogs:

Many people have commented already: some people are afraid of dogs, and typically more so of large dogs. And some are allergic to dogs.

What I haven't seen so far in this thread is: lots of people are also totally inexperienced with dogs: I grew up in rural place, we always had dogs and so had our neighbours etc. After a gap due to studying and working in large cities, I'm now back living in a village and have a currently adolescent Greater Swiss. I'm now just learning that most of my friends and acquaintances that met during studies and as colleagues (and also their kids) don't have a clue how to approach a dog (no clue as in asking whether "is this a threatening gesture" when the dog was yawning). And most of them are very fond of the outdoors (in a town-folk manner). This got me thinking:

  • While most people I meet locally outdoors are used to dogs (ask interested questions, walk their own dog, ... - we're rural area [for Germany] that is nice but not so exciting people would come here for a day hike from anywhere else) I expect to meet more dog-inexperienced people in more "famous" regions.

  • In consequence, I train my dog in ways inexperienced people approach dogs, like

    • patting the head (he was scared of that a bit at the beginning - and of course, scared dogs are unpredictable/potentially dangerous),
    • ignoring people looking/staring at the dog (still somewhat difficult: if someone is looking at him, that means dog should make friends with them, right? If someone is staring, dog needs to pacify the staring person. Maybe by licking the hands?s => which will then go up, so dog should jump to reach them, right?).
    • Learn that throwing up hands in humans is not the equivalent of dog play-with-me-jumps. (Still to learn)
    • Expose him to crowds (group hikes - obviously after making sure beforehand that everyone is OK with this).
    • With that he also has to endure strangers petting (it happens that grown up strangers pet him who did not ask beforehand! - I had totally expected this of kids, but not of grown ups). The goal is: dog knows he has to ignore humans, regardless of whether they ignore him or not.
    • Same with kids. Fortunately, there's a "forest-kindergarden" coming along regularly and about half of the kids love petting him and giving him treats [he loves that, too] - the other half is somewhat inexperienced/reserved or even a bit scared but the group is large enough that each kid can decide how close they'll be to the dog. The kindergardeners (or I) then explain a bit about dogs and everyone learns something.
    • I also hand over the leash to other persons (though he mostly just looks what I sign/allow with strangers - which is totally OK as long as I'm around) including kids (obviously only in situations where I trust him to obey unleashed, and only closeby - and, depending on the size of the kid with a halter* instead of the collar)
    • I train him walking with a halter for two reasons: in case we want to go by train, he's officially required to have a muzzle [the halter counts in some regions like a muzzle] and I want him to get used to having such a construction in his face. Second reason is: with the halter, also my 70-year-old mother is in perfect physical control of 60 kg adolescent dog of a cart-pulling breed.
    • Halter isn't as bad as muzzle, but I do get questions whether he's dangerous [sometimes adding: although he looks so friendly] when the halter is on - people understand that I want him to be used to halter/muzzle so he can come on the train. BTW: He's not "one of those breeds" - but: but for the white parts of the coat, they look quite similar to Rottweilers, and I get asked every once in a while whether he's a Rottweiler mix.
      For this question: So, yes, people may be extra scared of a muzzled dog. Maybe depending on local customs about muzzling: here only very few dogs are muzzled. "Those breeds" and "problem dogs" are required to, and so is any dog in trains etc. who isn't inside a bag (but dog on train is comparably uncommon). In contrast, leash is the norm.
  • +1 I was told that I should present the palm of my hand to a dog to let him/her sniff -- that this was like saying Hi to a person. Then, if the dog seems comfortable and friendly, and his person says it is OK, it is OK to pat. Is this correct?
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 1:29
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    @ab2 I present the back of my hand to be sniffed, with my fingers in a fist, because a fist is more difficult to bite than exposed fingers are. Also we got a dog from a shelter recently and took it to the vet: he held his hand in way that threatened to slap the dog's face (as a test), and was pleased when the dog didn't react: he said that meant the dog had never been slapped, wasn't scared. So palm toward the dog might be a bit threatening; it's also what you might do to suddenly grab/seize the dog. Giving the dog a "bro fist", which they can choose come and sniff, is more reserved, IMO.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 2:18
  • @ab2 Also you grab things with your hand, like a dog grabs (seizes) things with its mouth. So, your hand is analogous to a dog's mouth: putting your hand on a dog's head or neck is analogous to a big dog mouthing a little dog's head or neck -- can be interpreted as really dominant, threatening, "I'm the boss of you". If the dog is used to it then OK, but I wouldn't pet a strange dog unless it's asking me to and its owner is a friend and cool about our meeting. Yes it's polite to ask the person before greeting a dog. That also cues the dog that you and its master are on speaking terms, friends.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 4:00
  • Yes, back of hand is how I greet dogs and cats. I admit that if a dog is already trying to be friends with me (within a foot or so) and the owner isn't walking briskly and obviously pulling it away, I sometimes pet it without asking its person first. Trying to remember to ask first though.
    – kbshimmyo
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 17:24

It's really rather simple.

All dogs in all public areas must be kept under control at all times. If your dog goes toward other people, it is not under control and must be kept on a leash, as others have said.

In my experience, the only dogs that are under control of accompanying humans without being on the leash are service dogs and other working dogs (such as guide dogs for the blind¹ (unlikely to find on a hiking trail, although I did once meet a blind hiker on a narrow hiking trail along a steep slope)) and hunting dogs. I've met plenty of hunting dogs in nature, and they all seemed to totally ignore me. I'm afraid of dogs (including Liams “sea sponge”), but I don't mind hunting dogs. They appear to be true professionals. And that's for the better, because keeping a hunting dog on a leash would be impractical. A hunting dog may startle me but as it ignores me it will not scare me.

For any other kind of dog, I have rarely if ever experienced that an owner was actually in control. Therefore, the advice in other answers applies: your dog must be on the leash at all times, because you almost never know for sure if other hikers are near.

¹Of course, guide dogs for the blind are always on a very short "leash" (I don't know the correct word), I mean that I haven't seen that the human needed this "leash" to stop the dog from going to other people.

  • I'd probably generalise your comment to all working dogs, including livestock dogs and search+rescue dogs. They tend to be focused on their task, and pretty uninterested in passers-by. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 10:42
  • @TobySpeight True. I haven't come across search+rescue dogs but I certainly would expect them to have no interest in me (unless I need to be rescued!)
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 10:55
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    @TobySpeight the tasks of a livestock dog include (besides the herding) making sure that no one comes close to the stock (predators or humans). That is the reason why shepherd dogs are very aggressive, often coming ahead of the stock to chase people away. I was once surrounded by 9 herding dogs, and it was definitely not a pleasant feeling... See my comment here: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/15036/…
    – Akabelle
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 15:26
  • @Akabelle And yet, if well trained, they are under control: they will scare you, running and barking, yet stop five metre away rather than jump on you and tear you to pieces. The OP asks how to make people not be afraid, yet guard dogs (which include shepherd dogs) are rather trained so that they do make people afraid...
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 9:12

Unless your dogs are well behaved (will sit on a single command and not move) then address the dogs and distract them. Grab them by the collar. If the people don't bother you then the dogs are not likely to be bothered.

If the dogs will sit then leash them and order them to sit to the trail side. I don't see a need or benefit to engage the people other than hello. You want to teach the dogs that trail people are of no concern.


Consider a dog vest or one of those cute outfits women dress up there pets with. Always have your dog on a leash and under control. Make sure you have water and a treat available anytime you are out doors.


Get a visible dog muzzle, so people clearly see that your dogs are harmless.

Something like this: dog wearing muzzle with a cartoon drawing on the muzzle to look as if the dog is smiling

but nothing like this: Dog wearing a muzzle decorated to look as if the dog Is baring sharp, bloodstained teeth

  • this conversation has been moved to chat. Please don't use comments to answer the question or for general discussion.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 15:44

I'd like to suggest a different approach than the majority which seem to suggest that dogs shouldn't ever get to go hiking without being leashed.

To me, you need two components, and you'll be successful according to how well you can pull them off:

  1. Be able to read other people's reactions and body language to gauge whether they're interested in 'meeting' your dogs or not.
  2. Train your dogs to ignore strangers and stick close to you when passing others unless you tell them it's okay to say hello.

If you're not sure on the first point, assume they don't want to meet your dogs. Personally, I love to meet dogs out walking, and I'll always say a 'Hey, pup' or something like that - it should be obvious if someone else is keen for a pat, just as it's obvious if people want to chat or keep walking without stopping.

The idea that dogs must always be leashed in public really saddens me. Yes, some people are afraid or allergic - and that's totally legitimate - but dogs are part of our world, and I think it's perfectly appropriate that they are governed by manners rather than ropes and muzzles.

As a hiker, you have the right to expect that you're not licked or bitten by someone else's pet in public, but I don't agree that that translates to every pet needing to be tied to its owner at all times.

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    I'm sad you're sad that dogs have to be leashed in public, but you'd be more sad if an innocent passer-by was bitten by a dog that, for some unearthly doggie-reason, decided he was a threat. Dogs are not robots - you can't control them with an app and, no matter how well-trained they are, they can always switch into bite mode. You have no right to risk the well-being of others against the dog's desire to roam free. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 13:25
  • I know what you're saying, but I feel like the actual real-world risk of this is tiny. How many human-dog interactions end up in random biting? If we defend against things happening with those odds, shouldn't we also defend against everything else with a similar chance to do harm? For example, is it more dangerous to walk down the street with an unleashed dog, or drive a car down that same street with pedestrians metres away? In everything we do in public, we need to balance risk against value. I think our sweet spots are calibrated differently.
    – Beejamin
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 13:52
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    How many... can be easily answered, in the US alone, about 4 million per year. 20-30 result in death of the human concerned [source: CDC via Google]. Dogs routinely injure humans and dog-owners have an absolute obligation to avoid that their dog does so. I say this as a dog-owner and real doggie-person. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 16:36
  • Ok, that's a lot of bites. I'm better off asking "what proportion?" 4 million injuries is not 'dog walking with owner bit random passerby'. Even with that statistic, I would not call a ~1.2% chance per year of anything "routine" - it's extraordinary. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that every dog should be off leash in every situation. But I know plenty of dogs who would be absolutely safe in the situation described by OP.
    – Beejamin
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 17:29
  • Take a couple of kids (preferably your own) on a hike. Suddenly, two dogs come bounding down the trail and then, surprised, pull up short staring at you with their tails straight up. Their owner is 100 yards back, shouting "Fenton!". One dog growls; one of your kids screams. Absolutely safe?, sure... Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 6:58

Most of the times the hikers might be more afraid of the owners having big dogs than the dogs themselves.

So (if you at least want this), make yourself and/or the dogs as least aggressive looking as possible. Maybe by putting some funny accessory on the dogs, or the leash, or on yourself.

If you look like a macho guy with some macho dogs, than less macho people might feel uncomfortable. Of course this works best if you use the tips from others here (keep your dogs near you/leashed/smile/talk to them etc).


I read a leash as maybe saying, "The owner doesn't trust this dog unleashed"; and no-leash as saying, "This is a well-behaved dog."

That's if I can assume that the dog-owner is competent.

IMO it's just as good (as using a leash) to demonstrate your control by giving "sit!" or "heel" or whatever else. Ideally your dog is looking to (looking at) you for instructions, in which case I can ignore the dog and talk to you. If the dog is looking at me and trying to make its own mind up, then maybe I'll avoid all y'all (so that the dog stays closer to you than to me).

The important thing (the only important thing) is to be safe. It doesn't matter so much whether I'm scared of the dog and/or want to talk with you, the most (or only) important thing is that I mustn't be attacked.

I tend to use a leash only for safety's sake (not to punish the dog, not to make people feel happy) and/or to comply with the law.

The other bit ("homeless, long hair, unshaven, muddy") is maybe a bit more important than the dogs.

I guess my message is that it's possible to visibly control the dogs even without a leash. I cycle on a mixed-use tow-path and so cross paths with dozens of dogs per year. I ring my bell as I approach (so I can see what the dog's reaction to me will be while I'm still at a distance). Sometimes after an off-leash dog sees me, the owner "checks" the dog -- tells it to sit or just calls its name, at which point the dog might do a shoulder-check to the owner ("Hello, yes, I am still with you") -- as long as the dog is more interested in what the owner wants than it is in me then all's good (in my opinion). If the attention of the owner and the dog are on me and not on each other -- then I don't know.

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    A leash can also communicate "this owner recognizes that dogs aren't always fully predictable, and takes responsibility for that". Like a child, any dog has the potential to act unpredictably in unfortunate situations. Unlike most children, dogs can run fast and far as well as cause significant damage to humans and property. As long as the dog isn't straining against the leash, it often makes no practical difference for the dog if it's on leash or off leash. If the dog is straining against the leash, then that is a separate and very different problem from what the OP seems to be asking about.
    – user
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 23:43
  • "That's if I can assume that the dog-owner is competent." In what world can we assume every dog owner we encounter is competent, and every dog is perfectly obedient? It's only a matter of time before one of those things is not true. By then it's too late and the damage is done. That's why it has to be prevented. I'm allergic and I shouldn't have to put my health in the hands of every random stranger passing by with a leashless dog, hoping against hope that they're all "competent." We already know some of them won't be. Would you be OK with risking your own health on a loser's bet? Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 4:20
  • @InaneAsylum I don't say I allow my mum's dog off the leash -- because I won't risk other people's (or other animals') health on her dog's unpredictable behaviour. But I read other people's dogs, whether or not they're leashed. Your comment seems to be criticising my answer and I don't know why.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 9:26

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