Bringing dogs into parks can be dangerous

Bringing pets into national parks may seem like a natural idea to some. After all, where better to take a dog than the great outdoors?

The reality, however, is far from picturesque.

Dogs can be dangerous to wildlife and other visitors, and often find themselves in harm’s way.

All national parks have regulations in place for dogs. The rules are strict and do not allow for much freedom for guests who bring in their dogs. For instance, the Mount Rainier National Park policy, posted on the park Web site, states: “Pets are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, and on paved roads. While in these areas, pets must, at all times, be leashed or crated and with their owners.”

Click on the video at right to view a slideshow about national parks dog policies narrated and prepared by writer Margaux Herrera.

Other parks, such as Acadia National Park, offer a little more flexibility. In Acadia, policy on the Acadia Web site states there are “100 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads in the park where pets are permitted,” as well as two campgrounds and an island for day hiking. They must, however, be restrained on a leash.

The restrictions have been created over the years in response to incidents reported in the parks. Yellowstone National Park faced one such incident in the 1980s.

According to Linda Miller, Public Affairs office secretary, “some time in the early 1980s, we had an incident of a dog getting loose from a car and diving into a scalding hot spring (clear blue water that looks very inviting on a hot day), the owner dove in after the dog. Both died.”

This has happened several times over the years, and while no people have jumped in since, the danger is evident.

At left, a no-dog sign greets hikers on a trail in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. On some trails, national parks officials do not permit any pets (Staff Photo). Next below, a park visitor walks her dog in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on San Francisco Bay (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service). Last, the National Park Service sign noting areas where dogs, even on leashes, are not permitted (Staff Photo).

Because of issues such as these, “bringing dogs to Yellowstone is highly discouraged,” said Miller.

Big Bend National Park in Texas has faced similar problems over the years.

“Occasionally (dogs) escape and don’t return, and they’re presumed to be lost to wildlife,” said David Elkowitz, chief of Interpretation at Big Bend.

There are other problems beyond dogs escaping owners’ handling. Many sites warn of leaving pets unattended in vehicles. Rocky Mountain National Park states explicitly on its Web site:

“Do not leave pets unattended in vehicles. Interior temperatures of vehicles rise within minutes and pets can quickly overheat and die, even with the windows cracked.”

Besides hurting themselves, dogs can be dangerous to wild animals. Dogs are predatory mammals, and as such are likely to chase after other animals. Although many owners believe that their dogs are too well trained for an indecent to occur, that is not always the case.

Rocky Mountain National Park faced an issue with a loose dog several years ago.

According to public information officer Kyle Patterson, the animal ran away from its owners in the middle of Cape’s Cove, a mountain valley that is densely populated by wildlife.

“A dog had somehow gotten away from their owners.” (It) ran after a herd of elk in one of our large meadows… that was a pretty intense experience. It caused with that group of elk a stampede-like (run),” Patterson said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park had a similar incident involving a very different wild animal.

In another case of dogs unsecured in their owners’ vehicles, this particular canine reacted to the sight of a bear.

“The dog bolted out of the truck and went after a bear. The bear turned onto the dog, the dog thought better of it, and went and hid under the truck,” said park spokesman Bob Miller.

“It was kind of a dumb thing. Some people think their dogs are trained and will never jump out,” he added.

While no animals or humans died in these incidents (although one elk did fall), the issue remains that these domesticated animals should not be wreaking havoc among wildlife.

Owners should not forget that there are risks other than their pets just chasing other animals. Dogs bark, creating noise that can disturb both wildlife and park visitors alike. They also leave their waste around the park, the scent of which can disturb wildlife, and the sight of which can upset visitors.

Dogs can be dangerous to humans, too. At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the San Francisco Bay area, there were 35 counts of incident reports involving dogs in 2009 alone, many of which were encounters in which a dog bit someone.

Rocky Mountain, too, had yet another incident, but this time the victim was a person.

“A ranger was coming to a campsite because somebody was complaining about the dog. When he approached the campsite, the dog bit the ranger,” said Patterson.

Even if incidents such as these are rare, there is a more practical reason that parks have to be cautious when it comes to dogs.

“Not all people are comfortable with dogs. If someone is hiking and they come across the dog they donít know if the dog is friendly,” Patterson said.

For all of these reasons, all parks require that dogs be on leashes that do not exceed six feet in length at all times. This is in order to ensure that owners are in control of their dogs, who, in addition to all other potential problems, could be easily spooked or excited at the sight of a wild animal or even, simply, another dog.

The fact of the matter is, the National Park Service has nothing against dogs. They are just trying to ensure the safety of their land, wildlife and guests.

“Those of us who are dog lovers like to share with the public ‘hey, we love our dogs,’ but there’s a time and place for them,” Patterson said.

Things to Remember If You Go:

  • Check park regulations for the park you are planning on visiting. If restrictions are too tight and you are set on bringing your dog with you, try exploring different parks.
  • Make sure that you have a leash that is less than six feet long. You might even want to bring a spare.
  • And be sure to clean up after your dog.
  • Don’t take your pets into parks if they do not have all of their shots. They could be carrying diseases and infect other animals.

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