In the U.S., dog ownership is on the rise. About 70 million U.S. households had at least one dog in 2012, and a 2015-16 survey pinned the number at 77.8 million. That's about 47 percent of U.S. households. American cities are creating new dog parks more often than any other type of park, according to a 2015 report by the Trust for Public Land. Nationally, dog parks grew 6 percent in 2014, and increased 20 percent over the period 2010-15.
With a dog comes the desire to go outside and explore. As a dog owner, some of my fondest adventure memories are from trail runs with my pooch out on some lonely trail. Dogs make great companions in the woods, and the human-dog connection is one with deep ancestral roots. The connection with one’s dog is so close that some have wondered: did we domesticate dogs, or was it the other way around?
I mention all of this because many dog owners are very close to their pets, considering them full family members. This is all lovely, and I happen to personally believe that folks with dogs are among the most big-hearted and empathetic people in our community.
But as a conservation biologist, I often take time to talk with my friends and family about how dogs in our natural areas wreak havoc on native wildlife and clean water. This is important so that we can have crystal- clear conversations about appropriate settings for dogs, and how we balance protection of native wildlife and ecosystems with our need for immersion in and connection to nature.
So let’s be clear. Dogs are fun because they can be pretty rambunctious, wild and on the run outside. But we also have a host of indigenous wildlife species that are on the run, literally, from dogs. A new review of the scientific literature by Metro tells a sobering story. Dogs – whether on- or off-leash – are much more detrimental to wild nature than human visitors to natural areas.
Dogs are fun because they can be pretty rambunctious, wild and on the run outside. But we also have a host of indigenous wildlife species that are on the run, literally, from dogs.
Even the scent of a dog repels wildlife long after the dog has departed. Dogs trigger an alarm response in wildlife, increasing their stress levels, impeding feeding and movement, and reducing their fitness. Dogs cause direct and indirect mortality on wildlife. Some dogs kill wildlife, but it is more complicated than the image you may have of Fido wringing the neck of a helpless squirrel. There are also a host of indirect, sub-lethal impacts to wildlife that are cumulatively much more damaging than direct mortality. Dogs transmit diseases to and from wildlife. Dog waste pollutes runoff to streams and wetlands, transmitting harmful parasites and diseases to wildlife (and people). Dogs disturb and displace native birds, mammals and reptiles in their natural habitats. Disturbance to wildlife from a dog on a trail can extend hundreds of feet off trail. While some wildlife can habituate to human trail use, there is little evidence of habituation to dogs whether on- or off-leash. Off-leash dogs obviously cause a lot more disturbance, since they often roam off-trail and impact an even greater area of wildlife habitat.
So does all this mean we shouldn’t take our dogs outside?! NO! In and around Portland we have a wealth of dog-friendly outdoor places. The City of Portland boasts 5.4 dog parks per 100,000 residents, ranking it number one nationally on a per capita basis for U.S. cities. According to Rover.com, Portland is the second most dog-friendly U.S. city. There are now all kinds of handy online resources to find off-leash areas for Portland, Beaverton, Clark County, and beyond (here and here). Before you head to one of these off-leash parks, brush up on dog park etiquette.
Even if the designated dog off-leash areas are not your favorite place to recreate with your pooch, most parks in the area are open to leashed dogs. Places like Forest Park, Sandy River Delta, Tryon Creek, Powell Butte and many more are in this category. The Intertwine Alliance lists 54 parks or trails where dogs are allowed across the region.
As a dog-owner recreating in a park, you can be an important part of the solution by demonstrating good “petiquette” for others to emulate. Obey leash laws, pick up after your pet’s waste, and find non-shaming ways to remind other dog owners of their responsibilities. I’ve occasionally offered a spare pet waste bag to another dog walker who forgot theirs. Dog-owners are social types, and there is a certain camaraderie they feel toward one another. Work with that, and you will find creative ways to be an ambassador for our wildlife and natural areas, while ensuring that dog-owners and their pets continue to have a wealth of great regional outdoor destinations.
Finally, let’s all of us – whether dog-owners or pet-free visitors to The Intertwine – celebrate the wisdom of keeping some of our natural areas off-limits to dogs. These represent a fraction of all the parks and natural areas within our park-rich region. But we need places like Metro natural areas and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges where wildlife can roam unmolested by dogs.
Recent controversy in the press and with neighbors about dog access at Metro natural areas needs to be met with firm and respectful communications of support for Metro’s current pet policy. Critics of the policy often question how public dollars can be used to exclude certain park users. But they fail to recognize that voter-approved bond measures have provided $69 million to local parks providers to support development of dozens of destinations where dogs are allowed across urban Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties.
Please consider writing your Metro councilors to express your support for the pet policy and thank them for their leadership on this issue: