How To Keep Your Dog Safe While Camping In Bear Country
Dogs Make Great Camping Companions
If you're like many dog lovers, leaving Rufus at home when you leave for a camping trip isn't an option. Dogs make wonderful camping companions, but there are precautions you need to take to ensure the safety of your canine family when camping in bear country.
Confrontations between humans and bears can often be provoked into a much more dangerous situation than it needs to be by out of control dogs. If you're planning a camping or hiking trip into bear country and want to take your pooch with you, follow this simple guide to help ensure the safety of your beloved pet (and yourself!)
General Guidelines for Camping with Dogs
Above all else, as a dog owner it is your responsibility to ensure that you are following all the rules and regulations in regards to bringing your dog with you to a campground. Always check on the park's pet policy before you leave home.
Most provincial, national and state parks are dog friendly, but with limitations. Certain parks in Ontario, for example, have "dog free" designated areas for campers without pets and who do not wish to listen to barking dogs throughout their camping trip. (Not everyone is a dog person after all.)
Dogs are typically welcome on most camp lots, but are not allowed on public beaches, picnic areas or even some trails. Always ensure you check for the pet policy of your chosen camp ground before bringing your dog with you. If you don't plan ahead, you may end up having to stay behind to keep your dog company and miss out on the adventure. Which leads me to my second tip:
Never leave your dog unattended on the camp site. Most camp grounds have policies in place to prevent this. Not only is it cruel to your dog to leave them tied up outside in the sun all day, they may whine and bark the entire time you're gone exploring. This can attract the curiosity of bears and other animals. (And a barking dog left behind is also a sure fire way to annoy your fellow campers)
If your dog wakes up and barks a lot at any little sound during the night, consider putting a muzzle on them at bedtime. If they've never worn one, try putting one on them a couple of times before you leave for your trip to help them get familiar and comfortable with it. They may not like it much, but it can help keep you safe during the night. If a bear does wander into your camp site during the night, he might become spooked and aggravated if your dog starts barking at him. This could provoke the bear, when he might have left on his own accord after he wasn't able to find any food. The thin nylon of your tent isn't going to do much to protect you or your dog from the claws of a bear.
Do You Take Your Dogs Camping With You?
Storing Your Dog's Food
It is widely accepted that bears have the most highly developed sense of smell on Earth. They can smell better than any other animal on the planet. A bear's sense of smell is 2,100 times better than a human's. This is why when camping in bear country, you always need to keep your food and other scented items (like shampoo, soap and even toothpaste) in bear proof canisters or keep them all locked in the trunk of your car when not being used. This rule also applies to your dog's food (bears are omnivores, they will eat whatever they can get) and all utensils and dishes used to feed your dog and prepare their food.
- Don't bring the bag of dog food, keep it in a container. You can purchase many air tight, vacuum sealed containers to keep your dog's food in. Though, if you're staying on a drive up camp site, running out and purchasing vacuum sealed container's isn't necessary. I bought some large plastic containers from my local dollar store and stored my dog's food in there.(See photo above) However, it's only advisable to do this if you have a car or RV you can keep these containers locked in. I kept the dog's food locked in the trunk of my car, along with the rest of my food.
If you are camping in the back country or don't have a car to lock your food in (some people canoe or boat to their camp sites) then a simple dollar store canister will not suffice and you will need to invest in a bear proof dog food canister. See below for more information about taking a dog into the back country.
- Don't leave your dog's food dishes out. Stick to their regular feeding schedule as much as you can, but when they're done eating, clean their bowls with warm water and soap and put them away with your other cooking items and dishes.
- If your dog is more of a grazer and is used to having a full food bowl to go to anytime during the day, you need to prepare them to do without food until their next feeding time. I took a dog on a recent camping trip who liked the go to his bowl throughout the day when he got hungry rather than eating all of his breakfast or dinner at one time. I had to encourage him to eat as much of his meals as I could at once so I could put his bowls away when it was time to leave the camp site for the day. I was able to achieve this by sitting beside his food dish at meals times and keeping him company. When there was only a bit of food left in the dish, I fed it to him by hand. I wanted to make sure he had enough food in him to maintain his energy throughout the day until his next mealtime. Feeding him from hand made him think he was getting treats and he was more willing to eat all of his meal in one sitting. You can try to throw a little treat into their bowl to encourage them to eat more at once.
- Clean the area around your dog's food dishes after you put the bowl's away. Most dogs I know will usually leave some bits of kibble around their dish after they're done eating. Be diligent about picking up any bits of dog food left behind. Your goal should be to leave as little food items and scraps behind as you can to prevent bears from wandering onto your camp site. To make this step easier, place your dog's food dishes on a mat to help contain any bits of food that fall out of their bowl. I used a place mat I purchased at the dollar store.
Keeping Bears Out of Your Dog's Food in the Back Country
Most provincial, national and state camp grounds don't permit dogs into the back country area's of their park's. You need to be certain it is safe and that you are allowed to bring your dog with you into the back country before you leave home. Links are provided below to help you find whether your dog is permitted in a particular back country camp site.
If you are camping in the back country and intend on taking your dog with you, then it is necessary to keep pet food in a bear proof container (similar to the kind you would keep your own food in).
A bear's sense of smell is seven times better than a blood hound's. If you simply keep it in a ziploc container, or plastic baggy in your pack back, they will still be able to smell it. If you're back packing and don't have room in your pack for a bulky dog food canister, consider using a product like the OPSAK Odor Proof Barrier Bag. It's small enough to fit inside a backpack and they've been tested in bear country. They're also great to use on days hikes with your dog if you want to bring some dog treats or kibble with you.
Be sure to check the policy of your desired camp destination to see if these bags are acceptable substitutes for bear canisters. Some trails and camp sites will only allow metal or plastic bear canister's to be used in their back country.
Most conflicts between bears and humans are related to dogs that owners did not have full control over. A dog left off leash that spots a bear may want to investigate the bear further and begin chasing it. Unless a bear has learned to associate humans with food, most bears will want to retreat from a possible conflict (especially black bears). If your dog is off leash, he may entice a bear into a confrontation. Most dogs will bark at the bear and chase it, but when a bear turns to confront it, he will run back to his owners, thus leading an angry bear right to you. As evidenced by the video above, posted on YouTube by user Frank Ritcey. Always keep your dog on a leash when hiking out in bear country.
Hiking With Your Dog In Bear Country
- Don't let your dog off leash when venturing out on hiking trails. Most provincial, national and state parks have policies that require all canine visitors to remain on their leashes when in public places in their park, including hiking trails. Hopefully you're abiding by this policy to begin with. It is in place not just to protect other dogs and campers, but to protect your pets as well.
Even if your dog does very well off leash, it's never advisable to let your dog loose during a hike in the woods. Even the most well trained dog can become interested in something they spot in the woods and chase after it. You wouldn't want your dog to run off and accidentally happen upon a bear. If the dog runs away, the bear could chase him and your dog could unknowingly lead a bear directly to you. Leaving you and your dog in a potentially dangerous situation.
- Consider putting a "bear bell" on your dog's collar. This will create some extra noise to let any bears in the area know you're coming and give them the chance to take off before you get to them. Bear's don't like surprises. It will also help keep your dog safe in case he does manage to get off his leash and stop him from surprising a bear, (or a raccoon or any other animals you don't want your dog fooling around with.) It'll also make them easier to find if they wander off too far. Just listen for the jingling.
- Leave No Trace Behind. I'm sure we've all heard that phrase before.
One of the best ways to ensure our provincial, national and state parks stay beautiful for future generations, is to always pick up after ourselves.
As responsible camper's, it is our duty to ensure we pick up all garbage we create while camping (either by burning it, if it's safe to do so or putting it in the properly provided receptacles) to help maintain the health of our parks and ensure they're longevity for future generations to enjoy. This also applies to your dog's poop!
Don't be that person who leaves poop bombs all over your camp site or public hiking trails. (We know you're out there!) Not only is it disrespectful to other people using the camp grounds (and gross.. and irresponsible.. If you want to own a dog, you have to be prepared to deal with poop.) but it also can attract critters and bears. Yes, dog poop can attract bears to your camp site. Bears smell everything, including the undigested bits of food in your dog's poop. Pick it up and put it in the garbage, flush it down the toilet if your site has such amenities, or put it in the outhouse (but only if you're using doggy poop bags that are biodegradable).
If You're Searching For A Dog Friendly Campground
For camp grounds in Ontario, check out Ontarioparks.com
Simply choose the park you're interested in visiting via their handy park locater, for more information, including how to reserve a lot and their dog policies.
For information on any of the national parks throughout Canada, see Parks Canada.
For information about camp grounds in the United States, see The U.S National Park Service.
A Final Note
Let's be honest, nobody ever really wants to admit that they're dog isn't properly trained. We think it's a reflection on us and make's people think we're bad "pet parents". The fact is, some dogs just don't respond well to voice commands, some dogs are runners and will take off the second you let them off their leash and some dog's aren't very friendly with other animals. It's okay. Nobody's perfect, and no dog is perfect.
Especially if you are camping in bear country, it is up to you to be honest with yourself and determine whether or not it is safe to take your dog with you. It is perfectly okay to leave your dog at home (with a dog sitter, of course) if you don't feel like they'll be able to behave during a camping trip.