Environment

If You Love the Wilderness, Keep Your Dog Out of It

An interview with backpacking guide Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff on the costs of egocentrism in the backcountry.

There are some places he shouldn't go.

Photographer: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Tens of millions of Americans have gotten out to enjoy their incredible vacation property this summer -- their national parks, forests, wilderness areas and monuments.

And more and more, their enjoyment has seemed to require bringing along their beloved Labrador, maybe with his own Adventure Dog Pack.

While dogs are allowed in the national parks, they are mostly not permitted on the trails and otherwise have to be on a leash no more than six feet long. In national forests, they can be allowed on trails, though they are often supposed to be on a leash.

But if you walk more than 200 or so yards up a trail, it's common to see dogs where they are forbidden, or running loose in areas where they are required to be restrained.

What harm could that do, in the larger scheme of things? More than you think, says Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff, who has worked in outdoor education and recreation for more than 40 years, mostly in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In an email interview, Woodruff explains why the "rules don't apply to me" attitude is so pernicious. (Her views are her own.)

Q: Why should dogs not be allowed in the backcountry in national parks? 

Woodruff: Dogs are predators. As such, their presence stresses wild animals. Even a dog on a leash (and they all should be on a leash) negatively affects the wildlife. 

Also, many owners do not pick up after their dog, saying the waste is “natural.” In fact, the EPA labels dog feces in the same category as herbicides and insecticides, grease and toxic chemicals, and acid drainage from mines. The waste carries a number of diseases, including worms, parvo, giardiasis, salmonellosis and cryptosporidiosis.

Most dogs are not good endurance hikers. They wear out the pads of their feet, and since they do not sweat as we do, they overheat easily. Hikers routinely do not carry enough water for themselves, let alone for their dogs.

In July, Grand Canyon National Park had to helicopter a dog out at great peril and expense. Its owners had taken it to the bottom in 120-plus degree heat, and it overheated.

Q: This issue has caused friction for a long time. Are more people bringing their dogs to parks or are there just more people visiting, period?

Woodruff: Visitation to our national parks is up, no question. We want people to visit our public lands: The more people who appreciate them, the more voices we have to help protect them.

However, too many people have an egocentric approach to outdoor recreation. They don’t particularly care it their actions affect other people or even the environment. I am often told, “We’re just trying to have a good time,” when they are drawing on the rocks, or building an illegal fire, or letting their dog run loose. 

Q: You have identified the problem caused by people who claim their dogs are "service dogs."

Woodruff: Tell hikers that dogs are not allowed in the national parks, and nine times out of 10 they reply, “It is a service dog." It is ridiculously easy to get a service dog vest online. Or a collar. Or a bandana. A friend who is a vet tells me that she is constantly approached to write a letter authorizing a pet as a service animal (which she refuses to do). 

True service dogs are rigidly trained. 1 They are used to assist those with sight or hearing challenges, psychological disorders, autism, epilepsy, diabetes, allergies and narcolepsy. Lying about a pseudo-service dog does a disservice to these hard-working animals.

Under current law, one is not allowed to ask for papers to prove the dog is a service animal. One can only ask if the dog is needed because of a disability and what task the dog is trained to do. This is a convenience for those people who truly need their service dog to help them in everyday affairs. However, it makes it easy for scofflaws to flaunt their phony service dog without being challenged.

Online sites that promote service-dog fraud advise the owner to have his answer memorized so the lie bursts forth smoothly.

I have also been told, indignantly, that a dog is a service animal because, “I am afraid to hike alone, so that makes him a service dog.” “I cannot carry enough equipment to hike myself, so I have to have the dog to carry a pack for me.”

Q. What is an example of an encounter you've had with hikers and dogs?

Woodruff: A group of doctors backpacking in the Grand Canyon had several dogs with them. The dogs, unleashed, had me cowering behind a rock until they were called off. It was obvious that the doctors were not picking up the dogs’ waste. And, of course, they were “service” dogs. 

Q. What about the claim that dogs offer protection?

Woodruff: If a wild animal approaches them, the dog, it is assumed, will throw itself between the predator and its master. In the national forest, I have walked past unleashed attack dogs whose owners held them in a bear hug so I could pass without being mangled. 

Of course, if it tangles with something like a big cat or coyote, the dog will probably lose. Denali National Park, which is home to some pretty serious bears, warns that often a dog that chases a bear becomes a hazard when the bear decides to chase back. The dog then leads the bear right to its master. 

Q: What is the solution? 

Woodruff: Education is always key. However, people routinely walk past signs that plainly state “no dogs.” A ranger told me that people expect a ranger to hassle them. When the casual hiker comments on the dog (or whatever the person is doing wrong), it has more of an impact. 

Having said that, I once overtook a man on the trail who was verbally abusing a woman who had obviously said something about his two dogs. It would probably not have taken much provocation for him to become physically violent. I notified dispatch, and the next time I saw him he was justifying his behavior to a law-enforcement ranger.

Penalties definitely should be more severe. A law-enforcement ranger told me about catching a backpacker red-handed with his dog and wrote him the ticket. The man sneered: “It’s worth it to pay $400 to have my dog with me.” 

A special fee for dogs entering the parks might be possible, but how many people are going to reason, “I paid my $25, that means my dog is allowed anywhere I go"?

Education only works if people are open to change. I think hikers have to undergo a personal epiphany which changes their paradigm. Dog owners are so emotionally caught up in their animal, it is difficult to convince them to change.

Q. Could the outdoor recreation industry, which sells a lot of dog-hiking gear, do a better job of informing people about responsible behavior?

Woodruff: Absolutely. I see ads, articles and photos on social media all the time with dogs off leash in the backcountry. They usually include a proviso about dogs in national parks, but they do not emphasize keeping the dog constrained. Of course, one could say the same thing about the marketing of external speakers or drones or any items that are routinely misused. 

Q. What are other examples of "the rules don't apply to me" mentality?

Woodruff: Graffiti, littering, drones -- all are increasing. Short-cutting trails and producing social trails, which occur when hikers go off-trail to blaze their own path. These destroy vegetation, disrupt wildlife habitat and are unsightly. External speakers. These last are brand-new, and I run into several a day on backcountry trails. I have dealt with backpackers who simply do not get "leave no trace."

Again, it is related to increased visitation. Assume that 5 percent of people believe they are above the rules (I made that number up, by the way). If the visitation to the park increases by two million people, that is another 100,000 visitors with no manners.

All of our parks are overcrowded and underfunded. We have reached our limit infrastructure-wise. We do not have enough rangers to give interpretive programs, much less chase people down who are breaking the law.

A lot of the problem is the old “tragedy of the commons”: “I am only one person. Whatever I do is unimportant in the long run, and everyone else will do what needs done to do preserve the common good.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Therapy dogs or emotional support dogs are not service dogs.  They can fly with their owner on commercial aircraft, but they do not have the same rights as service dogs, such as going into national park backcountry.

To contact the author of this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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