A word about dogs

ZekeCan we talk?

Let me state up front that I love dogs. I've got pretty good canine-fu. Dogs usually like me, and I nearly always like them (okay, I have to admit to not being a member of the chihuahua fan club, but...c'mon, who is?). I've been a dog-owner for much of my life, always kept them inside and treated them as family members - if ones with off-putting personal hygiene.

Our culture has generally been pretty dog-friendly. And I do have some concern that this friendliness is currently a bit over the top, verging on dog-crazy. But even so, I don't really see it as a huge problem if someone feels undressed without Precious in their purse, wants to drive with a furball half in their lap and half out the window, or even brings their adorable drooly-face into a grocery store with them.

I do, however, have a problem with dogs in the wilderness.

Despite what many of us seem to think, dogs are not natural citizens of the backcountry. It's been ten to fifteen thousand years since they could reasonably have been considered wild animals, and one result of their domestication is that they don't fit into the wilderness so much as they alter it, and not to the good. Studies have shown that dogs affect the presence and behavior of wildlife.1 Unleashed dogs directly interact with the environment by chasing, extensively scent-marking, and in some cases even reproductively mixing with foxes, coyotes and wolves.Our canine pals also manage to vector bad bugs that neither we, nor they, nor especially their unsuspecting and vulnerable furry friends out in the wild want anything to do with,

"Domestic dogs can potentially introduce various diseases and transport parasites into wildlife habitats. Furthermore, dogs can transmit diseases and parasites to wild animals directly and vice versa." 2

[*And let's not kid ourselves that the leash laws are always respected; I once rounded a blind corner to the sight of a couple of mid-sized dogs aggressively, and loudly,Chloe charging me. This behavior was followed by dismissive and insincere "Sorry"s from the inconsiderate owners who never broke stride, or disciplined the dogs, or even took an extended moment off from their (apparently) riveting confab. I considered various alternate uses for my trekking poles that day, and it wasn't with regard to the dogs.]

Even when leashed, dogs still produce a measurable impact on local wildlife. Reduced small mammal presence in the area of dog-frequented trails has been tracked and documented, as have  changed patterns of behavior for some larger mammals like foxes and bobcats.

The point here is that dogs in the wilderness affect much more than a camper awakened by incessant barking, or a grumpy hiker startled by undisciplined mutts. Dogs change the very nature of the wilderness we seek out. They aren't pieces of that puzzle any longer, they no longer fit in. One might rejoin that neither do we humans belong out there any more than our dogs. The difference is that dogs still present and leave enough physiological, ethological and, well, scatalogical cues that they freak out the local fauna. Dogs interact with the wilderness ecology in ways that we don't. (And when they try to act wild, they basically just embarrass themselves - they're enthusiastic chasers, but pretty bad hunters.)

Yes, they're our bestest buds - we came up through the ranks together (we co-evolved). It's been a mutually beneficial relationship. That's why we find them adorable (just look at that lovable lab face up there) and that's why they think we're gods. But that doesn't mean they should go hiking and camping and backpacking with us. While national forests take a more relaxed attitude (leashed in developed areas and on nature trails, unleashed elsewhere is okay), our national parks are a bit more restrictive. Some allow leashed dogs, usually on selected paths (most often paved walkways). And some, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, even offer kenneling facilities. Most parks, though, do not want dogs on trails or anywhere near areas that aren't developed - in other words, wild places.

Even if you're not particularly worried that bringing your dog to a wilderness park will diminish your recreational experience, please consider that it may well diminish mine (and, by obvious metaphorical extension, others'). Even if you can't imagine that "just this one time" will cause any real problem, please remember that all it takes is a lot of people saying "just this one time" to add up to significant, measurable effects on the environment. And even if you don't think the people who put up that "No Dogs" sign know better than you, grab a cup of humility and think again. Of course they do. They're not intentionally trying to make life difficult for you and your little Snookums, they're dealing with a much bigger picture - working to protect and preserve the place you just came to visit.

TankI love dogs, I really, honestly do. But as I wouldn't take a boombox into the wilderness (hmm, there's another grumpy article waiting to happen) neither would I bring my dog. To be frank, I'd prefer if people didn't bring dogs anywhere near public wilderness areas, even to the campgrounds and nature walks where they're allowed. But I'm willing to settle for some sort of general observance of the guidelines set down by the parks. And even that will take some work. I can't count the number of times I've seen people proudly hiking along with their pooch on a trail that is clearly marked off-limits to dogs, and frankly, I just don't understand the compulsion. This outing is not, from Rover's perspective, a heartwarming and fulfilling return to a place of existential belonging. It isn't a music-swelling, ears-blowing-in-the-wind, run-through-the-meadow homecoming. It's a day at Disneyland for a patron with no impulse (or bladder) control. And nobody wants to deal with that.

So next time, think about leaving your dog at home. With any luck, there won't be anything funky for him to roll around in, and he'll probably be every bit as happy chewing on your favorite slippers.

1. The Effects of Dogs on Wildlife Communities. Author(s) :Benjamin E. Lenth, Richard L. Knight, Mark E. Brennan. Source: Natural Areas Journal, 28(3):218- 227. ftp://www.bio.sdsu.edu/pub/IEMM/Recreation/3rdTierLiterature/Lenthetal2008dogs.pdf

2. Sime, C. A. 1999. Domestic Dogs in Wildlife Habitats. Pages 8.1-8.17 in G. Joslin and H. Youmans, coordinators. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: A Review for Montana. Committee on Effects of Recreation on Wildlife, Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society. 307pp. http://www.montanatws.org/PDF%20Files/8dogs.pdf