Wilderness Wanderers: Exploring the Impact of Dogs in National Forests

June 01, 2023 Written by: Aiden Doane

National forests are a treasure trove of natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities, attracting millions of visitors every year. As dog owners, it's important to remember that our companions are welcome in many national forests but it's our responsibility to ensure we follow certain rules and best practices to preserve the environment and ensure everyone's safety.

First and foremost, before heading out to any national forest with your dog, do your homework and research the specific rules and regulations of the forest you plan to visit. Some forests may have specific rules around dogs, such as requiring them to be on a leash at all times or prohibiting them from certain areas. 

On lead or off lead:

As a general rule of thumb, the National Forest Service recommends the following policy - Generally, pets are allowed in all national forests, but when in developed recreation areas or interpretive trails they must be kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times. Leashes are not required in most other areas within the national forests but dogs  should be under control at all times.” 

Leash requirements are important because not everyone is comfortable around dogs, and you don't want to scare or intimidate other visitors. Furthermore, it's important to keep your dog safe from potential hazards such as wildlife or dangerous terrain.

Poop Protocol:

Let's face it, nobody enjoys stumbling upon a landmine of dog poop while enjoying a hike or a picnic. Leaving dog waste behind can spoil the experience for other visitors and negatively impact the overall ecosystem of natural areas. 

Water Pollution: Dog waste contains harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and fecal coliform, that can contaminate water sources. When it rains, the rainwater washes away the waste into rivers and streams, eventually reaching larger bodies of water. This can lead to water pollution, making it unsafe for aquatic life and potentially impacting the health of humans who use those water sources for recreational activities.

Ecosystem Imbalance: Dog waste can introduce excess nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, into the environment. When dog poop decomposes, these nutrients can seep into the soil and be washed away by rain, causing imbalances in the ecosystem. This can lead to excessive algae growth in water bodies, disrupting the natural balance and potentially harming aquatic plants and animals.

Health Risks: Dog waste contains pathogens and parasites that can pose health risks to other animals and humans. For example, the eggs of the parasite Toxocara canis, commonly found in dog feces, can survive in soil for long periods. If ingested by humans, especially children, it can cause serious health issues.

It's not just a matter of cleanliness; it's about respecting the environment and other people's enjoyment of it. 

If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go:

One of the best things about national forests is the opportunity to explore and discover new trails and sights. However, as opposed to other natural preserves, National Forests are often quite remote and less maintained. Getting lost is for real and one can quickly get themselves into a precarious situation without a solid understanding of the terrain or environment. Some trails may have steep drops or narrow pathways that could be dangerous for your dog or others. Additionally, some areas may be designated as wildlife habitat and closed to dogs to protect sensitive species. 

Rex Specs Founder’s Story From the Field:

I was out for a run in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in late fall. I had three dogs with me all off leash but within voice command. About halfway through the run a passing hiker told me there were a few moose on the returning path I had planned to take so when I came to the next junction, I decided to try a different trail that I assumed would take me around the moose. 

About a mile or so later, I realized the trail was not taking me as directly to my destination, but knowing I still had some decent daylight, I decided to continue - it was beautiful and the dogs were having a blast. Not much long after that, I heard the dogs start to bark, and then all circled back around to me. Just around the bend was a huge bull moose. I managed to keep the dogs close to me and tried to plot a path that gave the Big Guy a large berth. 

As I forged off the trail, in a constant chatter with the dogs to keep them close, I realized that the trail continued across a steep high mountain meadow below me. But, down below was not just a few moose but more male moose all herded up together than I had ever seen!

I kept myself calm, knowing that if I panicked the dogs might slip from my control. I grabbed a large stick in vain for protection but quickly abandoned that idea as it just lead to the dogs jumping for it thinking it was all part of the game. We slowly picked our way through the woods, always keeping eyes on the moose (every one of them). As we crept across the meadow, we worked to stay above the moose until we were back on the trail. We made it fine and survived the terrifying bluff charges. After more miles than I had planned on, the trail linked back up with the loop I had planned and we made it back to the car before dark. But, I had learned my lesson. Everything worked out fine but I made some serious mistakes that could have been costly. 

  • I made a last minute route change with no knowledge of the terrain or trail ahead of me.
  • I was alone, one knew about my route change and I had no cell service had I gotten into trouble.
  • I had no extra clothes, water or food. Though I often run with nothing extra, it’s best to carry some supplies when venturing out of cell service or in unfamiliar terrain. 
  • Adventures are fun and look back fondly on this day lost in the woods with my dogs but it could have ended poorly. I know plenty of people that have had serious run-ins with moose that have resulted in injury and worse to the canine companions. 

    There are many national forests across the country that offer a wide range of activities for dogs and their owners to enjoy together. Some of our favorites here at Rex Specs are:

    • Hiking: Many national forests have miles of hiking trails that are perfect for exploring. Just remember to stay on designated trails.
    • Camping: Some national forests allow dogs to camp with their owners, making for a fun and adventurous getaway. Just make sure to check the specific rules and regulations for camping with dogs in the area you plan to visit.
    • Swimming: If your dog loves to swim, some national forests have designated areas where dogs are allowed to take a dip. Just be sure to check for any potential hazards, such as strong currents or rocky shorelines.
    • Fishing: Some national forests allow dogs to accompany their owners on fishing trips, making for a fun and relaxing day on the water. Just be sure to follow all fishing regulations and keep your dog on a leash or under voice control at all times. Also, don’t forget their Rex Specs as light reflects off the water making the protection from goggles extremely important.

    National Forests are full of adventure, easy access strolls and multi-day expeditions. Know where you’re going, the rules for your dog, and be prepared and respectful of the land and ecosystem.  Now get out and explore!

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