OP-ED: WHY DOGS BELONG
ON A LEASH OUTDOORS
by Sarah Elmeligi
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to whether or not a dog should be free to roam in the mountains. Some think, “isn’t a dog happier, less threatening and more fun when it is off-leash?” Canmore-based biologist Sarah Elmeligi says it doesn’t matter how happy it makes your four-legged friend (or you); dog owners have a responsibility to follow the rules for a reason. Here she presents her case, backed by science, for putting your dog on a leash.
Back in May 2016, Outside Online published a piece by Wes Siler called Why Dogs Belong Off-Leash in the Outdoors. I’ll admit that I was so enraged by this article that it took me four tries to read the entire piece. As a biologist who is nearing completion of a PhD about grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have extensively researched what kinds of human activities impact bear behaviour and habitat use. There is scientific research that confirms the importance of keeping dogs on a leash outdoors.
In his article, Siler discusses the potential impacts off-leash dogs have on ecosystems and people. He also explains how a dog off-leash is a happier dog, and how it’s possible to have a well-behaved dog in the wilderness. While I agree with a few of his points about responsible pet ownership, I take issue with the majority of the article and find parts of it to be grossly inaccurate or riddled with assumptions that aren’t supported by science. Let’s get into it:
IMPACTS ON WILDLIFE
When dogs are off-leash, they can chase animals, such as prairie dogs, birds, deer and even bears. But, does this happen often? What are the resulting impacts? Siler refers extensively to a study by Bekoff and Meaney (1997) where it was found that dogs off-leash did not travel far off the trail and were rarely observed chasing other dogs or wildlife. This study showed that, though dogs clearly influenced the behaviour of prairie dogs, no prairie dogs were caught or killed by dogs. This sounds very positive and suggests dogs have less impact on an ecosystem than I originally thought. So, no big deal, right?
As a behavioural ecologist, however, I think it has potential to be a very big deal. Influencing the behaviour of animals can have grave impacts that don’t necessarily involve a dog actually catching and killing the animal. The impacts of our recreational activities on animals include changes in behaviour or physiological state (inducing stress), compromised survival rates, and habitat displacement events resulting from harassment of animals by recreationists and their pets. These kinds of impacts are observed over short time frames through an animal’s fleeing response (increased energy expenditure), or decreased levels of eating (decreased caloric intake). Continued exposure to disturbances like this may result in long-term impacts to the population’s growth or even overall ecosystem health.
Research looking at habitat displacement has found that recreationists can displace moose, bears, deer, prairie dogs, birds and the list goes on. Every time one of these animals is displaced by a dog off-leash, it spends more energy running away and less time eating. This is particularly important for ungulates (moose, deer) in the winter, when survival is already a challenge. For a moose to worry about an off-leash dog when it’s really just trying to survive can be a major problem. Last year, in Kananaskis, an off-leash dog chased a young moose for more than a half hour. A chase this long in the dead of winter can have serious repercussions for that moose’s health, maybe even leading to the death of that moose if it was not able to replace those lost calories. Habitat displacement and resulting energy loss has also been shown to impact grizzly bear health along Alberta’s eastern slopes, although studies don’t usually separate human use and off-leash dog use. Just because you don’t watch the animal die doesn’t mean it hasn’t been negatively impacted.
It is also important to remember that any potential impacts of off-leash dogs on the ecosystem are added to the impacts of people in the area. This is called cumulative effects. The science of cumulative effects is abundant and has been used to quantify impacts to ecosystems from recreation, agriculture, urbanization and industrial uses. We cannot consider impacts from dogs in isolation and use that a reason to have dogs off-leash. All impacts created by people ought to be considered in conjunction with each other to truly understand the impacts of recreationists on an ecosystem.
Siler cites another article that shows how carnivores can contribute to ecosystem health by changing the behavior of herbivores or smaller animals that people might perceive as a pest. An ecosystem with its carnivores eliminated is indeed altered, but I want to be clear that dogs off-leash do not replace a native carnivore (like wolves, coyotes or bears) in an ecosystem. While a barking dog may scare away deer or raccoons, a dog is not a resident of the ecosystem and does not contribute to that ecosystem in any other way. In this example, Siler has taken a scientific article and misrepresented its results and purpose, which also leads to a misinterpretation of the science and its application.
IMPACTS ON HUMANS
Another issue of dogs off-leash is the potential for human/wildlife conflict. A seminal scientific paper published in Nature Online by Penteriani et al. (2016) compared details regarding 700 large carnivore attacks on people from 1955 onward for six different carnivore species (brown/grizzly bear, black bear, polar bear, cougar, wolf and coyote). Carnivore attacks in North America have been increasing over time. This increase in attacks could be due to the corresponding increase in the number of people recreating in areas inhabited by large carnivores, which implicitly increases the probability of an encounter.
In North America, coyotes and cougars were responsible for the majority of attacks, followed by bears, and then wolves. The most interesting finding of this study, however, was that risk-enhancing human behaviour was involved in at least half of the attacks examined. The five most common human behaviours occurring at the time of the attack (from highest to lowest) were: 1) parents leaving children unattended, 2) dogs off-leash, 3) searching for a wounded large carnivore during hunting, 4) engaging in outdoor activities at twilight/night, and e) approaching a female with young. This study shows conclusively that having a dog off-leash increases the chances that people will have a negative encounter with or be attacked by a carnivore.
The other side of any encounter is the animal the dog runs into. If that animal is a prairie dog or moose, it will run away. But what if this animal is a carnivore? Not all bears will run away from a dog. Most research studying bear behaviour has found a large degree of individual variation; not all bears react the same way to the same things. How a bear reacts to stimuli is based on many things. In this scenario, how a bear reacts to a dog is based on other encounters it had with dogs in the past, encounters it had with other bears that day or week or hour, if its belly is full of food or empty, if it has something to defend or protect (e.g., cubs, a food source), or even if it’s in a good mood or not. There have been situations where a dog has brought a bear back to its owner when the bear started chasing the dog. It is arrogant to assume that all wildlife will run away from a dog off-leash; dogs are not the top of the food chain. Staying safe in areas where carnivores are active means keeping a dog on-leash.
AVERSIVE CONDITIONING EXPLAINED
The Outside Online article suggests positive impacts of having dogs off-leash by using the example of Karelian bear dogs that are trained to harass bears away from human-use areas and sheep away from roads. This practice is called aversive conditioning and it is used by wildlife managers across North America. But, it is much more complex than suggested in the Outside Online article.
Aversive conditioning uses punishment, where the application of a negative stimulus is paired with the animal’s displayed (undesirable) behaviour to reduce the likelihood that the animal will continue to display that behaviour. Essentially, it is a way of training wild animals to avoid habitat in places that are potentially dangerous (e.g. roadsides or campgrounds) or to not engage in risky behaviours (e.g. eating garbage). The punishments associated with aversive conditioning are most effective when they meet an array of criteria that is very specific to the area and species being conditioned. Aversive conditioning should be applied immediately (within two seconds of the behaviour being displayed), and consistently (every time the animal frequents that area or engages in that behavior). Aversive conditioning should also be more intensive initially and then waning over time. There should be variety in who applies the conditioning and with what tools so that animals don’t get used to a particular vehicle and a particular stimulus. It is much more complex than having an off-leash dog chase a bear every once in a while.
Aversive conditioning rarely involves only dogs. Wildlife managers use dogs in conjunction with several other tools such as shooting animals with bean bags, using loud noise makers to haze animals away from target areas, or even using conditioned taste aversion where a nausea-inducing chemical placed on food causes the animal to associate the food source with feeling sick. Also, when dogs are used in aversive conditioning, they are always on-leash! This gives the handler complete control over the dog and prevents it from running off and chasing the animal for a half hour when all the dog needs to do is scare the animal away from the immediate area, whether it’s a campground or the roadside.
Aversive conditioning can provide new flexibility for management, and can be used to target specific problem individuals. If aversive conditioning is successful, bears will learn to associate humans, human food and human developments with a negative stimulus and avoid them in the future. Aversive conditioning programs are well thought out, strategic, consistent, and require ongoing capacity from trained professionals and their professional dogs. They are not programs with random people walking their dogs off-leash in the wilderness. To suggest they do is akin to suggesting that anyone with a First Aid course could also do open heart surgery.
JUST DO IT
Part of Siler’s argument is that his dog is happier off-leash and, as a result, so is he. I agree. Dogs are happier off-leash. Just like my cats are happier when they’re allowed to roam the neighbourhood and pee in a neighbour’s garden and eat all the native, migratory birds they can get their sharp little claws on. That doesn’t mean I let them outside. As a responsible pet owner, I have to consider how my choices with my pet affect the people and wildlife around me. So a dog may be happier off-leash, but it may also just be happy to be outside enjoying the woods with its owner. Dogs are pets, which means that we train and control them. It’s our responsibility to do so in a way that minimizes the potential impact on the ecosystems we take them to. Just as it’s our personal responsibility to be good recreationists and minimize our own impact to ecosystems.
Putting your dog on a leash is not only responsible pet ownership, but it’s the law in most protected areas in Canada and the United States. Make sure you understand what the laws are pertaining to dogs. There are usually places for a dog to roam off-leash, so take your dog there if you need to see it run free. If a law is in place that dogs should be on-leash, then trust that it wasn’t created to upset dog owners, but was likely put in place to protect the ecosystem, avoid negative human/wildlife encounters, or to ensure other users have a high-quality experience, too.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.
Sarah Elmeligi is a wildlife biologist based out of Canmore, Alberta. She is currently working on her PhD examining how grizzly bears and hikers coexist in the Canadian Rockies. Prior to that she worked tirelessly on the campaign to protect the Castle as the Conservation Director for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.