Out of Bounds

Dogs in the Woods

Whether you’re in a National Park or National Forest, you have a responsibility to stay engaged and aware

By Rob Breeding

Years ago, in Arizona, officials of the National Forest that surrounded our town announced that dogs on the forest must be leashed.

The new rule didn’t last long. Area hunters pointed out that leashing a bird dog kind of defeated the purpose of a bird dog. So the rule was amended to say dogs must be under the “control” of their handler. 

In other words, it was a full retreat.

I’ve never had major issues with the non-nimrod crowd while out hunting, partly because bird hunters are part of a small minority of people who enjoy wandering around on an empty prairie or cactus-infested desert during seasons when the weather is often inhospitable to recreation.

You just don’t see too many folks during hunting season. Those that you do are almost always other hunters. If they’re big game hunters, that can be a problem. Our activities generally aren’t compatible. But if they are other bird hunters, the dogs get a sniff session with unknown pups, while the humans have a friendly chat before heading off in opposite directions.

My only moment of non-hunter engagement that went poorly, as best I recall, was with my chocolate Lab, Mack, out in the forest during a summer exercise session. We were a long way from the road and the dog was having a grand time running his socks off.

My dog’s bliss was only enhanced when he noticed a mountain biker headed down the trail in our direction. There was heavy cover in that forest, ferns and tall grass, but Mack was determined to meet that bicyclist. He chugged through the cover and when I realized he was going to catch up with the bike, I started yelling, calling him back.

Neither Mack nor the mountain biker heard me. But the cyclist did finally notice the brown fur ball headed his way, skidding to a halt with a shriek.

I wasn’t laughing when the mountain biker finally noticed me and realized the brown fur ball was just a Lab who wanted to introduce himself. Labs are inclined that way, as anyone who’s ever been around this breed — 90% of the U.S. population I suspect — knows. I was embarrassed and tried to apologize, but the dude just yelled something about how my dog scared the “poop” out of him, and rode off.

This was in the same forest a few years before the misguided leashed-dog rule was briefly in force. Some might even argue it was exactly the sort of incident that necessitated the leashed-dog rule, but not me.

A National Forest isn’t a National Park and Arizona isn’t griz country, and even if it was, a National Forest’s multiple-use mandate allows for plenty of activities just as likely to lead to bear conflict as an unleashed dog. 

I’ve got nothing against mountain biking in National Forests as those folks have as much right as I to use our land as they see fit. But it may be dangerous to be in a fairly remote place and be so zoned into your activity that you’re unaware there’s another human 30 feet away, screaming at the top of his lungs at the dog you also haven’t noticed.

If I was headed into one of the parks in griz country — Glacier, Yellowstone — the dog either stays home or only gets out of the car for brief doggy breaks, on a leash. It just makes sense and acting otherwise seems a good way to get you, and the people around you, into trouble.

Yet, whether you’re in a National Park or National Forest, you have a responsibility to stay engaged and aware. Bears aren’t the only danger out there. Remoteness itself can imperil. 

The unleashed dog you encounter in a place where rules allow it might not be the problem. The problem could be your expectation of entitled obliviousness in the outdoors.