Adventure Dogs

Tips for Hiking with Small Dogs in Bear Country

June 22, 2023

Last fall I experienced my first super close encounter with a black bear.  Both of my small dogs, Kitsune the papillon and Fenrir the Alaskan Klee Kai, were with me at the time.  Despite being toy/small breed dogs, Kit and Fen promptly positioned themselves between me and the bear.  They stood their ground and barked until the bear turned around and sauntered off.  Thankfully, the bear seemed like a younger one who was more curious than anything else.

We live in rural New England, where encounters with bears and other wildlife species are common.  It’s for sure something I keep in mind, especially while hiking or exploring in the woods with my two fuzzy sidekicks.  Especially after our close encounter last year, I have no doubt that Kitsune and Fenrir would both throw themselves into the line of fire to attempt to protect me.  Anyone who doubts the bravery of a little dog never met my two!

Are Bears Afraid of Dogs?

hiking dog bear countryNot always.  It depends on the bear.  Black bears are more likely to run from barking dogs than grizzly (brown) bears are.  But in the midst of a bear encounter, most people probably aren’t paying much attention to exactly what type of bear they’re face to face with.  And neither, of course, is your dog.  While some bears may run from dogs, others, especially grizzly bears, may do the opposite.  I’ve heard more than one story about a dog owner letting their pet run loose in bear country, only to experience Fido frantically running towards them with a grizzly in hot pursuit.

In a 2014 edition of “International Bear News” (page 19), researchers Hank Hristienko and Stephen Herrero pointed out that, in many cases, dogs actually provoke bear attacks.  Between 2010 and 2014 they looked at 92 reported back bear attacks on humans.  49 out of the 92 attacks involved dogs.  That’s just over half of all the reported black bear attacks within that time frame!  In addition, 21 out of 23 attacks that involved female bears with cubs also involved dogs.

So what can you do to keep yourself, and your dog(s) safe while hiking in bear country?

Safety Tips for Hiking with Dogs in Bear Country

  • Always keep your dog leashed!  This is SO important!  Believe me, I understand how tempting it can be to give your dog a bit of freedom when the two of you are (seemingly) alone in the woods.  But you’re not really alone.  Uncontrolled dogs can easily wander out of sight and provoke wildlife.  This is not only dangerous for your dog and the wild animal involved, but potentially for you as well.  Your dog may lead provoked bears or other angry wild animals directly towards you.
  • Keep food and trash items contained.  If you’re going for a longer hike and will be carrying food, it’s important to keep any food and trash items you bring, for you or your dog, well contained.  Consider using a bear canister or bear proof container to carry items that may grab the attention of a bear.
  • Keep an eye out for signs of bears.  Be proactive.  If you notice signs of bears, such as foot prints, fresh scat, overturned logs, or new scratch marks on trees, avoid that trail.
  • Stay vigilant.  It can be tempting to listen to music or an audio book while hiking, but it’s important not too, especially in bear country!  Stay alert and use all your senses to check for signs of dangerous wildlife.  Be especially careful when you’re  hiking near loud, flowing, bodies of water as the sounds of the water can sometimes mask approaching wildlife.  Approach blind turns carefully and keep your dog(s) close to you at all times.
  • Make noise!  I’m planning on buying bear bells to attach to my dogs’ harnesses.  Talking, singing, or humming while hiking with your dog can serve the same purpose.  Make noise to alert local wildlife to your location.  This gives a chance for animals such as bears to flee an area before an encounter occurs.
  •  Carry bear spray.  Bear spray can deter bears in the event of an encounter, and is safer than carrying a firearm.  But it’s important to practice using bear spray, to familiarize yourself with how to use it before an encounter occurs.  An active bear attack is not the time to realize that you never looked at the directions for your bear spray!  Bear spray should be carried somewhere very easy to access, such as clipped to a belt loop, during hikes in bear country.  It won’t help you during a bear attack if it’s buried at the bottom of your backpack.
  • Hike during the day.  Bears are most active at dawn and dusk.  Timing your hike appropriately can help you to avoid encounters.
  • Never corner a bear.  Don’t allow your dog to either!  If you come across a bear, slowing back away.  Ensure that you are giving the bear plenty of escape routes.  Animals that feel trapped or cornered are more likely to attack.
  • Learn what to do if you encounter a bear.  Most experts recommend slowly, and calmly, backing up if you find yourself overly close to a bear.  Put as much space as possible between you and the bear, but don’t overreact or try to run.  Avoid sudden movements and don’t make direct eye contact with the bear.  You don’t want to startle the bear or make yourself look like prey.  Stand up tall and use your arms to make yourself look as large as possible and make noise.  If the bear charges use your bear spray.  Read more about how to react in the event of an attack here.

Keep Your Dogs Leashed!

hiking dog bear  countryThis tip bears (haha) repeating!  Always keep your dogs leashed if you hike with them in areas with bears.  While many a brave dog would probably try to save their humans in a bear attack, oftentimes unleased dogs are the ones provoking such attacks in the first place.  Under normal circumstances, wild animals, bears included, want to avoid encountering humans just as much (if not more) than we’d like to avoid coming into contact with them.  But wild animals who feel threatened are much more likely to feel the need to react aggressively.

I get it.  When you’re hiking in the wilderness you want your furry best friend to be able to experience feeling wild and free.  But safety is more important.  Protect your dog, and yourself, by keeping your dog under control and close to you while adventuring in the great outdoors.  Believe me, your dog will love spending time hiking with you even if they are on a leash!  Hikes are always the most fun when everyone gets to return home safe and sound.

Comment below!  What potentially dangerous animals live near you?  Do you carry bear spray or other means of protection when you hike with your dog?  Have you ever had a close encounter with a bear, or other threatening wild animal?  How did your dog react to the encounter?

hiking dog bear country

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