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Off-Leash or Leash: Idea(s) for Your Dog to Run Off-Leash

NOTE: Read your state’s websites and published laws closely to best understand the restrictions for activities on government lands. Failure to read the laws and understand the aspects like hunting seasons can result in a precarious situation for you and your dogs.

On-Leash v. Off-Leash — How Do We Think About It…

The topic of on-leash vs. off-leash treks with your dog is a heated debate. Most hikers are not excited about off-leash four-legged friends. Unless your dog is extremely well trained, it’s sometimes hit or miss with its actions and behaviors. You can certainly aid the process of recall and behavior with technology like e-collars, but that still does not rule out the legal issues associated with off-leash treks with fido. But there is a way to do some off-leash training with your dog if you read the laws closely and you feel comfortable letting your dog run off-leash on specific hunting lands. Enter Wildlife Management Areas.

If you reference the blog post on OnX Hunt (TrailHack#101: Mapping: Finding Trails on Your Own and the Apps to ‘Lifehack’ Your Adventures) and use apps to find places to Hike, you can find the Wildlife Management areas by a general search of “WMA” or “Wildlife Management Area” and other land types like BLM, National Forest, etc. However, it takes a little bit more than just finding a WMA or parcel of land and going off on your trek. It’s going to take some elbow grease and research. Do your research, it’s important to make sure that you’re within the guidelines of stated laws.

Many of the WMAs and government lands have restrictions and unspoken rules which include:

  • Some laws outline how dogs are lawfully allowed to be on the land unleashed during hunting season for training and/or hunting purposes

  • Some WMA has a dedicated area for running your dog, but the use of the areas are bound by hunters unspoken rules — like the order of use is related to parking sequence

  • AND MOST IMPORTANTLY Being conscious of hunters and the times that they are out hunting (including recognizing that you’ll need to adjust your hours as to not ruin their hunts by fidos tearing around prime hunting areas … share the land, be considerate)

  • EVEN MORE IMPORTANT … Avoiding the hunting areas during Trapping Season

Don’t forget that you’ll need a few things with you, I have listed the rundown of gear that we choose to bring with us (Gear Guide | Equipment. Tech. Clothing.) — including call-outs to a Leatherman, Wire Cutters, and First Aid Kits. But that should be a starting point for you, not the end all be all. For example, these lands frequently have barbed wire fences and areas where fido can get hurt, etc.

But also:

  • You’ll need a Hunting License when trekking on the land with fido because technically you’ll be within the legal definition of hunting with your dog, and the way I read it — that includes even if you’re just hiking. Plus is just good practice to contribute funds towards the land you’re using. The hunting license fees go towards maintaining these lands

  • Your dog will need a blaze orange visi-vest during hunting season, but frankly should be worn all the time on that land. For Addison, she wears the Mendota Visi-Vest (Visi-Vest - Mendota Pet). She is roughly 48lbs and wears a small vest, but the medium has more coverage and still fits too. It’s just a tad bit lose.

With a little research, your mapping apps, and/or the internet, read through the rules at the WMAs, BLM areas, and dedicated Hunting areas.

Example: WMAs & Government Lands for Hiking with Your Dog

Once you find an ideal WMA, BLM, or National Forest (or any other type of land) to venture out with fido, the research needs to begin. For example, Virginia has a number of great WMAs for venturing out and can be found by searching the internet and using the website. Each state has a page that is dedicated to these resources and provides a host of informative tools.

Picture 1. Example of Virginia DWR home page for C.F. Phelps WMA

Within the webpage, there will be a resource dedicated to the “Rules” of the WMA.

Picture 2. Menu on the DWR website

If you scroll through the page for the WMA rules, you will see a section that calls out “DOGS.”

Picture 3. Rules for the WMA

This is probably not a loophole, but it sure flirts with the line. Technically you may be hiking, but your dog is considered hunting when running amock on these lands. After you determine that dogs are able to legally able to be off-leash for “training” purposes based on the published information on the government website, you’ll need to dig to find the rules around when the hunting seasons are and timeframes. So back to the DWR website for your particular state.

Picture 4. Hunting Season Link

Once you enter the area for Hunting Season and Regulations, there is typically a PDF file for seasons. For Virginia, it’s a great resource that is more of a digest or magazine format.

Picture 5. Virginia’s Hunting & Trapping magazine

Once on the resource, it’s going to take a little bit of reading to understand the aspects at which your dog is allowed to enter the space and participate lawfully with you on your hike. Since most of the WMAs have hiking trails that many may be undocumented, it’s a great way to get outside and spend time with fido.

Within the Virginia DWR document, there is a specific section that calls out “Hunting with Dogs.” But this still does not call out the specifics to the restrictions for when your dog can join you at the particular WMA, but this does call out specifics around when they can be used for hunting and/or training.

Picture 6. Exert from Virginia’s Hunting & Trapping magazine on Hunting with Dogs

On the very next page, you’ll find information about “Training Dogs.” This is where you’ll see the restriction for “Hunting License” required, as the Training is considered hunting.

  • This also calls out that you can “…train dogs on National Forest or Department-owned lands only during authorized training seasons that specifically permit these activities.”

  • And for C.F. Phleps, the dogs can “train from September 1 to the day prior to quail hunting season”

Picture 7. Information on “Training Dogs”

Additionally, when you use the “Find on Page” in your internet browser to search on the keyword ‘dog’ (keyboard shortcut: ctrl+F), you can find additional information with sleuthing additional areas you might be able to take your dog off-leash during specific times of the year. And where most of the availability for use of dogs typically falls is under Small Game Hunting. These seasons have the broadest date spans for your dog to be able to join you. Remember, you must have a hunting license to fall within this ‘law’ and the ability to ‘train’ your dog. Your dog should have a visi-vest.

Picture 8. Small Game Season which covers most of the year

If you continue to use the “Find on Page” (keyboard shortcut: ctrl+F), you find a number of other references to when your dog is allowed to be on the land and when it is restricted or not allowed to participate in training at that time.

Designated Dog Training Areas

If you do look closely, some of the lands provide an area for your dog to run. These areas are oftentimes used by NAVHDA organizations across the country. There are unspoken and spoken rules about the use of the field. For example, if there is more than one person on the land, the order in which the cars are parked in the lot dictates use order. Read the information resources on the WMA for specific information with regards to the use of the land.

Picture 9. From Maryland’s WMA Website on McKee Besher’s rules for Dog Training Area

Picture 10. Map of the Dog Areas for McKee Besher’s

Trapping Season

Probably the most important notation is Trapping Season. This would be a time that you would want to avoid the WMA, BLM, or National Forest when the land is sanctioned for Trapping Season.

Picture 11. Details on Virginia’s published Trapping Season, suggest looking at your state’s information

For Virginia, the Trapping Seasons are difficult to navigate, at least for me. But when you look at the neighboring state, there are some easier ways to view which WMAs and government lands restrict Trapping. On their version of the Hunting & Trapping digest/magazine at the end of the resource, there are icons that denote trapping at each WMA.

Picture 12. Maryland’s call out to Trapping at each WMA is easy to access (but not easy to find at all state websites or in their resources)

That said…

While this method of attempting to find the areas for allowing your dog to “train” on government land during sanctioned seasons is time-consuming, we have found that this is helpful for us to be a little more comfortable. Read your local laws, use the internet and various government resources, and make your own decision on if this method to find somewhere for your dog works for you.

And be kind to the hunters on the land and do your best to respect their season. After all, it’s hunting land that allows this to be possible.


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