Humans and grizzly bears share a love for beautiful wild country. As both the recreational use and development of areas adjacent to grizzly habitat increase, we bring our dogs with us. Over a third of United States households own at least one dog, and there is a lot of overlap between the categories of “People who enjoy recreating in the backcountry” and “people who own dogs”.
But what happens when grizzlies and dogs meet? The first instinct of most wild animals, even predators such as coyotes and black bears, are to run from a barking dog – though of course exceptions occur for animals that have young or have been conditioned to find food around humans. Grizzly bears, however, are less likely to be intimidated and deterred by dogs than other predators.
Why are grizzly bears more defensive?
A grizzly bear averages larger in size and more aggressive in defending itself than a black bear. When a black bear has an encounter with something that frightens it, it is most likely to flee from that danger. It can run away – capable of hitting speeds from 25-30 mph – but also has the option of scaling a tree in just a few seconds. It is easier to escape a threat in the forested habitat that black bears prefer.
Grizzly bears are more likely to be found in open, tree-less habitat than black bears. Cover that can shelter a bear from danger is more sparse. And with claws that run from two to six inches long, it is much more challenging for an adult grizzly to climb a tree to escape danger. So when a grizzly feels like it can’t flee from the threat, defensive attacks are more likely to occur. Female grizzly bears also have fewer litters and surviving cubs over their lifetime than black bears – one litter every three years compared to a litter every other year – so a female grizzly has a higher reproductive investment in her cubs – they are less “expendable” than black bear cubs.
Dogs have the same fight-or-flight instincts as bears and other animals when they perceive a threat. When you combine this behavior with a grizzly’s defensive nature, the results can be tragic for the dog, the bear, or a nearby human. When a dog barks aggressively at a grizzly, a grizzly may respond in kind and kill the dog to eliminate the threat. Bears can easily outrun and catch dogs. When a dog runs from a grizzly, the bear’s predatory instincts may be engaged. Making the affair more tragic, a scared dog is most likely to run to its owner for safety, leading the bear right to the human. While there are anecdotal stories of dogs successfully defending their owners from bears, in many cases the bear would not have attacked in the first place without the presence of a barking dog trying to protect its owner.
Grizzlies and Dogs in the Backcountry
Leave Fido Home
There is no risk-free way to bring a dog into the backcountry when there are grizzlies around. The safest thing to do is to leave your dog at home. This is disappointing news for many people visiting the region who are not used to hiking in habitats with large predators, but it’s just common sense. Most National Parks in the United States such as Glacier or Yellowstone forbid dogs on trails completely. If you are on a road trip with your dog and need to leave it behind as you hike, please don’t leave it in the car where it might overheat – find a local kennel or dogsitter.
If you choose to bring your dog in grizzly country and it is legal to do so, the best way to reduce risk of a bear encounter is to keep the dog on a leash. A leashed dog is always under your control. Even well-trained dogs are not 100% reliable under all circumstances, and when a dog’s adrenaline is pumping during a bear encounter, a dog that normally comes when called may not even hear you. By keeping your dog on a six foot leash, it also eliminates the possibility of the dog surprising a bear from a few dozen yards away and leading it back to you. But a bear will still view humans with a leashed dog as more of a threat than humans without a dog, so make sure you carry bear spray and know how to use it.
Control is Critical
There are some areas of some public lands in grizzly country where off-leash dogs are legal. “Off-leash” does not translate to “uncontrolled”. Areas of National Forest, BLM, and other public lands where off-leash dogs are legal still require you to have it under complete voice command. This means not only keeping your dog within sight, but also under control under all circumstances. If your dog sees a squirrel, deer, or bear and gives chase, it should be well-trained enough to stop in its tracks and return to you when you call it. Again, there is still no completely safe way to bring a dog into grizzly country, and letting it off leash is more dangerous than keeping it on a leash. If you do choose to have your canine companion off-leash, you must first put the time into training a reliable recall.
Grizzlies and Dogs in the Frontcountry
Be Mindful of Attractants
When you live in an area of North America where you may have grizzlies on your property, you can take steps to reduce the chances of a negative dog-grizzly encounter. The best way to reduce bear-pet conflict in residential areas is to eliminate or secure all bear attractants from your yard. Anything with a food odor might attract a bear, including bird feeders, fruit trees, garbage cans, and chicken coops. Keep pet food secured and feed your pets indoors. This video shows what happens when dog food is left unsecured in bear country. Notice that the dogs “aren’t listening,” which could be because they have not been well trained or could be because the excitement and adrenaline of a bear encounter is overpowering their training. Keep your yard free of bones and other scented chew toys such as nylabones.
A Team Effort
Unless you live on a very remote property, chances are you have neighbors that might also have bear attractants in their yard even if you are taking the best precautions. These neighbors might have varying levels of willingness to take the extra steps required to safely live with bears. Educate your neighbors on bear safety, offer positive solutions to potential areas of conflict, and set a good example on your own property.
Look, then Leap
Get into the habit of doing a visual check for bears before you let your dog into your yard. With its superior sense of smell and hearing, your dog may sense the presence of a nearby bear or other predator that you can’t see. Consider holding onto your dog for a minute or so before releasing it into the yard – if there is a scent of a bear in the air, a dog will often become very tense and alert.
It’s no surprise that so many people who love the West, the wild, and the bears within it are also dog lovers. Just take the time to ensure that those things don’t collide on your watch. Let’s keep our dogs, our bears, and ourselves safe.