Video: 'The worst thing you can do' in bear country

A mother grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park on Sept. 3. (Mike Godfrey—At Home in Wild Spaces)

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Seemingly innocuous decisions can be very consequential.

It's a sometimes brutal reality powerfully illustrated by the death of three dogs this summer on the slopes of Utah's Mount Timpanogos. Each wandering off-leash — and each gored or hurled over cliffs by mountain goats.

Whether visiting national forests, national parks, or state parks, dog owners are limited to pet-friendly areas only, and must keep their dogs leashed at all times.

There's good reason for this regulation, aside from basic courtesy: protecting natural resources and wildlife and protecting people and pets. But it's a regulation that is mostly ignored by the public.

Dogs have a long and well-documented history of causing problems for themselves and their owners on the trails, roadways, or in the backcountry — from incidents of dogs attacking other dogs or aggression toward humans, to harassing wildlife. Keeping your dog leashed at all times when exploring the outdoors is a smart choice.

Wild animals, in particular, are not defenseless and are often very capable of injuring or killing a dog or the dog's owner if provoked. And while it might sound harsh, the hikers who lost their dogs to mountain goats on Mount Timpanogos got off relatively easy compared to other individuals — like a young woman who, in 2021, jumped into a broiling thermal spring at Yellowstone National Park to save her dog. She suffered severe burns but survived. Her dog, however, did not.

Other individuals have been attacked by moose and other wild animals; a woman was killed and partially eaten by a black bear while walking her dogs near Durango, Colorado, two years ago.

Given the viral nature of bear attacks, there's little wonder that bears top the list of animals that people fear most. And while the threat posed by bears is vastly overblown, having a dog with you increases the likelihood of being attacked by a bear.

Tom Smith, a wildlife biologist who specializes in the study of bear attacks, warns that letting your dog run around off-leash "is probably the worst thing you could do" in bear country. Not only do dogs tend to run around and "scare up" everything, he said, but "bears have an innate aversion to dogs" and "people with dogs off leash are involved in (attacks) a lot. The ones on a leash even get it, as well, because bears see them and it triggers this innate thing."

Many travel with dogs with the expectation that their companion's superior sense of smell or hearing will serve as an early warning system should a bear be nearby. There are serious flaws with that strategy, which are discussed in greater detail in the included video. Bears are broadly considered to have the keenest sense of smell of any animal in the world; put bluntly, even bloodhounds can't out-smell bears.

Beyond the sensory disparity, because of their resemblance to wolves, coyotes, and even cougars, dogs are likely to be perceived as a threat by bears. "Running around with a dog ups the probability of a problem," Smith said.

A published examination of 92 black bear attacks within a four-year block in North America concluded the majority of attacks involved one or more dogs. And the majority of those attacks involved dogs that were off-leash.

The same summary found that, despite their reputations, mother black bears are extremely unlikely to attack people, unless they are being harassed or a dog is present. Of the 23 attacks perpetrated by black bears with cubs that were reviewed in the 2014 report, 21 involved one or more dogs.

Deterrent or distraction?

Beyond the fact that the presence of a dog is very likely to trigger a bear's aggression, it's natural to wonder whether man's best friend would come to its owner's aid should a bear attack.

"Know your dog" is a socially popular bit of counsel passed around among dog owners but, given the rarity of bear encounters and other variables, that's very problematic advice. It's simply not possible to know how an encounter will play out if you or your dog stumble upon a bear or other wild animals. Dogs and bears have different individual personalities and are not always predictable, regardless of how well you think you know your dog. While a very "well-trained, leashed dog can be a benefit," Smith's frequent collaborator Stephen Herrero warns, "bears and dogs can be a dangerous mix for humans."

This is well illustrated by an explosive confrontation caught on video in 2018, when a man tried to scare off a mother grizzly bear with the help of his dog and a 12-gauge shotgun.

The video included in this article includes portions of that encounter as well as a more thorough analysis of the conflict. But the primary takeaway is that the dog was no help whatsoever.

Not only did the dog not engage the bear in defense of its owner, but the mother grizzly's aggression was singularly focused on the man and not the dog. This is the result "in most cases," says Herrero. Unlike the mountain goats that killed the dogs in Utah this summer, a bear that perceives a dog as a threat is very likely to engage the dog momentarily before turning its aggression to the dog's human companion.

This is why people are counseled to keep their dogs leashed, or leave them at home in bear country. With very few exceptions, dogs are banned from trails and boardwalks at all national parks.

If you are traveling in bear country, travel with other people and carry and know how to use a deterrent like bear spray.

Keeping dogs leashed is also a great way to actively and passively encourage other dog owners to be respectful of other people and responsible on the trails. Social validation and custom are typically far more compelling to most people than posted signs and trail regulations.


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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