Sense & Sustainability

Dog walker in Bird Park

Imagine being out in nature, quietly watching birds through your binoculars. You are silent and still, and completely focused, when a dog, startled by your presence, lunges at you, barking. The owner, 20 feet away, relaxedly assures you the dog is friendly, however, the snarl on its face indicates otherwise. Your heart rate is up but you try to remain calm. The dog walks up to you and tensely sniffs, while the owner saunters over. With a quick apology, they call the dog and keep walking, unaware of the impact of the interaction. The birds you were quietly watching are long gone and you are rattled. How many of us have encountered this situation? For outdoor enthusiasts, this scenario plays out with alarming frequency.

The same physiological response you feel in the presence of an unruly dog is also felt by wildlife. Dogs are known to chase or harass wildlife, including small mammals, reptiles and birds, causing them to stop their normal activities and expend calories in their flight or fight response. Scientific studies have shown that over time, this can have a negative effect on wild species; many will avoid the habitat altogether. This is particularly troublesome in spring, when the young of many species are exploring the world for the first time, and are unable to flee successfully.

Dogs are not permitted in any of Mt. Lebanon’s parks except for Bird, Twin Hills and and Robb Hollow, and there they must be on leashes. I have been pleasantly surprised on recent walks in Bird Park to see that many dog owners complying with this regulation. This small act of keeping your dog on the path and on a leash is a huge win for wildlife and conservation, and a common courtesy for everyone enjoying a quiet walk. I only wish this were the case in other natural areas.

Dogs can cause other problems if not kept on a leash. According to the CDC, more than 4.5 million dog bites occurred last year, with approximately 800,000 bites requiring medical attention. More than half of bite victims are children. Dogs can also spread diseases to wild populations, and collect ticks and fleas and bring them home to their human family.

Picking up after your dog is very important everywhere, especially in natural areas. Dog feces can wash into creeks and lakes, and contaminate natural waterways.

Dogs have long been known as “human’s best friend.” Indeed our furry pooches are known to create well-being in their owners, lowering stress and bringing joy and comic relief. While dog ownership has many positive benefits, dogs should not run free in natural areas. Following a few simple guidelines can ensure that everyone can enjoy natural areas while leaving room for wildlife:

• Keep your pets on a leash, and keep them close by.

• Do not let dogs wander off the trail, damage vegetation or harass wildlife.

• Collect all dog waste in a bag, close it tightly and dispose of it in a trash bin. Leaving baggies along the trail or throwing them in the woods is not enough to prevent the waste from entering the ecosystem.

Photography by Linda Hackett