How to Keep You and Your Dog Safe From a Bear Encounter

Be bear aware. Learn how to be safe and know exactly what to do if you encounter a bear when hiking, camping, or enjoying the great outdoors with your dog.

The arrival of Spring is a great time for dog owners – the days start to get longer and the hiking season begins. But, with the start of hiking season also comes the start of bear season. If you enjoy hitting the trails with your dog, you need to learn to bear safety. The following post covers how to keep you and your dog safe from bear encounters as well as what to do when you see a bear.

The Presence of Bears During Hiking Season

In Canada, BC doesn’t only stand for British Columbia but also Bear Country. Even though it’s an ongoing joke, the presence of bears is no laughing matter, especially for dog owners.

According to MetroVancouver, black bears are active between mid-March and November. Unfortunately, that covers the Spring and the fall. That’s when it’s actually the best time to enjoy the great outdoors with your dog.

Keep in mind that, in the springtime, bears are emerging from torpor. This is a near-hibernation state that helps them survive the harsh winter months. So, they’re driven by intense hunger. Then, throughout the fall, they’re still motivated by food. This time, it’s because they need to keep packing on the fat to prepare for another winter season.

Things that Attract a Bear

Whether in Canada or any other bear country, bears are primarily driven by food. When a bear has exhausted a food source in a particular area, they will simply move on to another area. So, just because you haven’t seen a bear on a specific hiking trail, it doesn’t mean they won’t find their way there.

To avoid bear encounters with your dog, you need to avoid attracting them with scents. Bears can easily associate any smell with food. If you need to bring food, store it in airtight containers. Also, be aware of what bear food sources may be in the area. Berries and salmon are favourites! When these are around, avoid the area, or you might end up encroaching on their food source.

How Far Can a Bear Smell Things?

According to the Yosemite National Park Ranger Notes, a black bear’s sense of smell is approximately 7 times keener than that of a bloodhound. It’s difficult to calculate the actual distance from where they can smell. But, it’s not surprising to know that they can smell a food source from 20 miles away, given ideal wind conditions. That might seem exaggerated. But, keep in mind that polar bears (a close relative) can track down seals up to 40 miles away.

How to Stay Safe in the Backcountry With Your Dog

Even during bear season, bear attacks involving a dog are relatively rare. However, in those that have happened, the majority involved a dog that was off-leash. If you are hiking with your dog in bear country, consider keeping them on a leash. You can always use a long, loose leash to give them their freedom to roam. That way, you’ll also have the option to rein them in whenever you need to.

How to Avoid a Bear Encounter

The best thing you can do to avoid bears when hiking with your dog is to stay on the trail. Bears will generally avoid a busy trail, and the last thing you want to do is surprise a feeding bear.

You should also be aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep an eye out for bear scat, something your dog might also alert you of. Bear scat, tracks, and disturbed vegetation are all sure signs that a bear is nearby. That means you should be on high alert and make careful decisions about your route.

Whenever possible, hike in groups. The flurry of activity will keep bears away. Being in groups also generate more noise, which helps alert the bear of your presence. This is a good thing because surprising a bear is probably the worst thing you can do. Besides, unless provoked, bears will want to avoid you, too. So, if they hear your noise, they’re likely to just run away.

What to do if you Encounter a Bear With Her Cubs

One of the more dangerous situations that you may encounter is a mama bear with her cubs. According to bearsmart.com a female bear with cubs is much more likely to react aggressively than a bear that is not defending their cubs. If the bear is a black bear then the female may react by snorting, pawing at the ground or bluff charging. In this situation the bear is not looking to attack, they are sending you a message that you are too close and need to back away.   If the bear is a grizzley they are more likely to actually attack.

In either situation you need to react the same way. Stay calm and prepare your bear spray in case you need to use it. Do not make any sudden movements, slowly back away and turn around when it is safe to do so. Leave the way you came.

Do Bear Bells Work?

Bear bells are noisemakers that are similar to sleigh bells. They are popular among hikers, campers, and others who enjoy being outdoors. While these can fasten to almost anything that will move enough to ring them, they’re commonly used on dogs.

Bear bells work by making enough noise to alert bears and other wildlife of your approach. Hearing this from afar gives them enough time to move away.

I personally believe that bear bells work. I’d recommend them to anyone going outdoors, especially if they are with their dog. I do a lot of hiking with my dog Avy during the Spring and summer. She wears a bear bell and actually enjoys wearing it. She will happily run along the trail, allowing the bell to jingle out a warning to any bears in the area.

To date, we have not had a negative encounter with a bear. We did encounter a small black bear while hiking near a salmon-bearing creek once. But, the bear detected our presence before we realized and it made its way up a tree. Once we became aware of the bear, we quickly leashed Avy and calmly made our way back up the trail, going out the way we had come in. I honestly believe that it was Avy’s bell that kept us safe in that instance. I also think that the bell has kept us away from other bear encounters.

What to Do if You Encounter a Bear With Your Dog

If you do encounter a bear while hiking with your dog, escape unscathed by following these rules by Orvis:

  • If the bear has not seen you, leave quietly without attracting attention. If you run, you may encourage the bear to run after you. So, slowly turn and walk away.
  • If the bear has spotted you, be sure to give them some space. Keep your dog close to you and calmly go back the way you came. If necessary, take a detour to provide the bear with as much space as possible.
  • If you are at close range and an encounter is unavoidable, make yourself look as big as possible. Then, make lots of noise to scare the bear away. Do not make eye contact as the bear may mistake this for aggression. Back away from the bear, making sure that they have an escape route as well.

If all else fails, make sure you have bear spray AND that you know how to use it. If the bear attacks – fight back! Let the bear know that you and your dog are not easy prey.

Generally, a bear does not want to encounter you any more than you want to encounter them. So, when you are out hiking with your dog, make sure that you make your presence known. Put a bear bell on your dog, talk loudly (or even sing!) while walking on the trail and clap your hands to announce your presence.

Lastly, always be vigilant, especially when you’re out with your dog. You’ll never know how they’ll respond to the presence of bears until you’re already in that situation.

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