How To Follow A Trail
The more you take your dog hiking, the more you are exposed to the different ways parks mark their trails. The best parks will provide you with a mapboard to study, a trail map to take along, brief trail descriptions - including distances - of what to expect, well-marked trails, and junction signs.
Most parks won't give you all that - you'll get some items from the menu or maybe none at all. The more you hike with your dog the more you will find yourself making a wrong turn somewhere. Even when you are really paying attention it is surprisingly easy to miss a turn out in the woods. Unless you are looking for a true wilderness experience with compass and wayfinding aides you are not going to want to go into the woods unless you have a trail map. A trail map, even if it is a bit sketchy, will keep you from getting lost if you find the trails not enthusiastically marked.
Often a printed map isn't available but one is posted at the trailhead. If there are many trail options grab a piece of scrap paper from your car to sketch a rudimentary map before heading out rather than rely on your memory out in the woods that can turn confusing.
Once on the trail you will be following colored blazes painted on trees. The very best trails will be blazed often enough that you will see the next blaze immediately after passing the previous one. This is seldom the case, however. Trees with blazes fall over, paint fades from trails that are not maintained or blazes are just applied sparingly. This is why it is important to start with a map - to reinforce your confidence on poorly marked trails.
Big parks can have an elaborate trail system with many colored trails - the most I have ever seen is 23 trails all blazed in different solid or multi colors. The same path may be used by several trails so pay attention. On many long-distance, multi-day trails (the Appalachian Trail, for instance) the main trail is markes in white and EVERY side trail is blazed in blue.
Some parks don't blaze their trails at all - they rely on signposts at trail junctions to guide you here and there. Again, a map is a must at these parks since you don't want to come to a junction where a signpost has disappeared or been stolen by vandals. Incidentally, trail junctions at parks that don't use signs are indicated by two blazes one on top of the other. The higher of the two blazes is offset in the direction you want to go, ie., if the upper blaze is a bit further left than the bottom, turn left. On the best-marked trails you will also sometimes find three blazes in the shape of a triangle - that marks the end of a trail. Congratulations - you made it back, and hopefully you didn't have to rely on your dog's nose.