Watching your dog run happily through the woods can be one of life's great pleasures. However, your freedom and that of your dog has to be balanced with various rules as well as the comfort of other trail users and the safety of wildlife in the forest. How can we best find that balance so that everyone can enjoy the experience of being in the forest or walking out on the mesa near the Rio Grande?
The problem for other trail users
Walking with your dog is a great way for both you and the dog to get exercise, and it can increase the bond between you as well. I try to walk my dog every day even if it is only for a short time. However, for people who walk without dogs, it seems reasonable enough that they should not have to interact with dogs unless they are comfortable doing so.
"What dog owners may not realize, is that those of us who hike without a dog are without the buffer that dog owners have. We meet each dog face to face - and pass by up close," said Renee Hardy who has been hiking for more than 25 years in Taos. "Off leash dog encounters are always uncertain and not always nice. These encounters can be super dangerous on narrow trials and especially the steeps. I've been bitten, knocked down, cornered, chased etc. Most dog owners are deaf to 'call your dog!' Only one dog owner has ever apologized."
"I would say that incidents have definitely escalated over the last five years. There are way more people and more off-leash dogs on the trails now." Sadly, Hardy has recently given up hiking, saying it is not fun for her anymore.
Winter for wildlife
A particular consideration during this time of year is the vulnerability of wildlife. "All wildlife that does not hibernate during the winter is trying to stay alive out there; utilizing winter habitat while trying to conserve as much energy as possible. If dogs are not leashed, there is risk of dogs chasing wildlife away from their winter habitat and causing wildlife to expend energy that is not necessary," according to Francisco Cortez, wildlife program manager for the Carson National Forest.
There are also hazards for your dog in the woods, including being injured by an animal defending itself and being caught in leg traps, which are legal on public lands during certain times of the year if they are 25 yards away from trails and roads.
Rules on public lands
The hiking trails that surround Taos are primarily found on public lands overseen by either the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Carson National Forest.
Tami Torres, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM said that at developed campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads, dogs are required to be on leash. These areas are usually posted with signs that remind owners of the rules. In less developed BLM areas, owners may choose to let their dogs off leash, but as Torres said, "Owners can't fail to prevent their dogs from harassing wildlife, people or other dogs." Torres adds, "Owners are asked to pick up after their dog on the trails. 'Pack it in, pack it out" applies to dogs, as well as people."
According to Denise Ottaviano, CNF public affairs officer, no federal law regulates dogs on national forest land. She said, "We strongly recommend that dogs stay on leash or under voice control. They can chase wildlife and may get injured themselves when they encounter a hoof or claw."
Local dog experts said that communicating with your dog in a way that he understands is key to good social etiquette and safety for your dog and other trail and park users.
"Dogs should earn their freedom and only be off the leash if they demonstrate good to excellent recall. If not, you put your dog in a situation that may create safety problems for your dog, other dogs and people on the trail," said Delinda VanneBrightyn, owner of Dogology and head of the canine unit for Taos Search and Rescue.
She added, "Your dog may be friendly, but some people are afraid of dogs, and we don't want to invoke fear in people."
VanneBrightyn trains people to have their dogs sit calmly behind them to allow people to pass safely. "It creates a nice safe encounter," she said. "It takes dedication to work with your dog to ensure they have the necessary training. If you have problems, consult a professional dog trainer."
She points out that having a dog on a leash causes a dog to react differently than he might off leash. Although dogs think like humans in some ways, in others their thought processes and reactions are completely different and are hard for humans without training to understand and anticipate.
Janice Sandeen of Communing with Animals points out that each situation demands an appropriate and specific approach. "I think there are times when a control-based approach can be a temporary part of a system (such as person/dog/nature systems) increasing or moving toward more intelligence, sensitivity and awareness," she said.
The enjoyment of our public lands can be shared with our dogs as well as other people on the trail with a bit of thoughtfulness and consideration. We can coexist and enjoy the benefits of being in nature while we protect the deer, bobcat, coyote, and other wildlife that make the forest their home.