How to Keep Your Dog (and Yourself) Safe in Bear Country

Taking a dog on a bear-frequented trail heightens your risks. Stay out of trouble with these 5 tips for hikers with canine companions.

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Not everyone you meet in the backcountry feels the same way about your dogs tagging along as you do—least of all, other wildlife. That’s doubly true for bears, which aren’t fond of their distant relatives. (Need proof? Some conservationists are using dogs to scare grizzlies out of conflicts with humans.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to leave your pooch at home when you head into bear country. Follow these pointers for a fun, incident-free trip.

1. Don’t forget about your dog’s food (and waste).

When you’re hanging bear bags or packing the bear can to keep smells away from your camp at night, don’t forget about your dog’s cargo. Your pup’s things are probably a little smellier than yours, so everything from dog food and filled waste bags to chew tows and treats should be put away at night. If your pup is wearing a backpack, hang that, too, recommends Marna Daley, an official with the grizzly-heavy Custer Gallatin National Forest: Just like your backpack can pick up sweat and other smells, your dog’s can attract hair, sweat, and other animal smells.

2. Keep your pup under control.

Even if your voice control is normally great, Daley cautions, bear-dog encounters are extremely unpredictable. “That fight or flight response is variable by critter,” she said. While some dogs might immediately run in the opposite direction, others might get excited and run toward the wild animal. Dogs have also been known to wander away from their owner and stumble across a bear, then retreat back, bringing the bear along with it—a situation that has resulted in a few attacks. “If you keep your dog close enough that you can see it and it can see you, that element of surprise from an approaching bear decreases,” she said, and the pup is less likely to bring an unwanted guest with them.

3. Recognize that your dog stinks.

Yes, we know, you bathe your pooch regularly. But the reality is that some dogs always smell, and all dogs sometimes smell, especially when they’ve been splashing in puddles. A bear could easily get curious and decide to investigate after smelling a dog from a distance, Daley says.

4. Don’t get complacent.

There is a bright side to having your dog: Barking can serve as a warning signal to a bear, reducing the chance of blundering into one unexpectedly. Still, animals are unpredictable, and Daley recommends staying as alert as you would without your pet. Don’t count on the dog waking you up in the middle of the night when a bear wanders in, either: They could just as easily sleep through the visitor as you could.

5. Carry bear spray.

If all else fails and you do come in contact with a bear, keep your dog calm and close by and follow the same rules you would if you were alone. Back away slowly, make yourself look larger, and don’t make any sudden movements or run away. Bear spray becomes particularly important when you’re with your dog: With the dog’s movements or barking, your chances of aggravating the bear into action are higher. Be ready to pull the trigger if you get charged.