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Doggie Dos: Dogs and wildlife

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004

Kathy Hocker is a naturalist, educator and nature artist who has lived in Juneau for almost 30 years. She has observed and taught about Southeast Alaska wildlife for more than 12 years. Kathy spends many hours each week hiking with her dog, Magpie.

L: How do dogs affect wildlife - and why do you think we should be concerned?

K: Wild animals fascinate dogs and may elicit their "prey drive" - which makes sense, because we've bred them for thousands of years to track, pursue and herd other animals. They love to chase - but while chasing can seem like harmless fun to them and us, it's serious to wildlife. Repeated hazing and chasing by uncontrolled dogs can cause wild animals to abandon areas they formerly used, and in many cases it can kill.

But it's not just chasing. Traffic by dogs and humans can be pretty rough on the more sensitive wildlife habitats - with dogs tending to do more damage if they run off-trail. Finally, just the presence of dogs can be a deterrent to some wild animals.

L: How can we tell if our dogs are disturbing wildlife when we're out walking on a trail?

K: Be aware. Watch for wild animals and study their behavior as you pass. Most wild animals, if they don't run outright, will vocalize and/or make nervous movements when they feel threatened.

Your dog can help you be more aware of wildlife. For every wild animal you see, he probably senses ten others. Study his behavior, and you'll learn how he reacts when he senses an animal. Then you can respond by controlling him and also enjoy watching the wild animal too.

L: What kinds of things do you do, to walk your dog in a wildlife-friendly way?

K: I keep Magpie within sight while we walk. I try to pay attention to the habitats we're passing through, and to manage her accordingly. For example, when hiking past sensitive habitats such as certain fragile riparian zones, marshes, or meadows, I keep her with me on the trail.

I also make choices about where I take her. Sometimes I'll choose to leave her at home if I want to visit a place that is particularly vulnerable, at a sensitive time of year such as nesting or migration season.

L: What do you do when you encounter a wild animal while walking with her?

K: I call her to me and put her on leash or ask her to "stay" beside me until the animal has moved out of our path. If the animal is not on our path, I'll have her "heel" beside me until we've passed. My goal is to keep her under control, so she doesn't chase, and to make our movements as predictable as possible for the wild animal, so it feels less threatened.

L: Do you have any training ideas for keeping dogs from disturbing wildlife?

K: One key to good wildlife manners is being in control of your dog. Here are some things that have worked well for me:

• Practice basic obedience, particularly "come," a LOT. Do it at home, where there aren't so many distractions. And always reward your dog for coming. Make it a part of this exercise to snap a leash on your dog's collar and then release it again. In time, your dog will learn that the leash doesn't mean the fun is over.

• Teach your dog an alternative to chasing wildlife. Get her hooked on fetching a toy or sticks, or playing tug-o-war. Then when she notices an animal, call her before the chasing behavior begins. Reward her by playing with her. If your timing is good and you're consistent, her chasing instincts can become displaced, so that she comes to you for her toy when she sees an animal, instead of chasing it.

• To teach a "leave it" command, put a favorite toy or a treat in front of your dog's nose and say "leave it." If she lunges for it, cover it and say "leave it" again. As soon as she backs off and gives you her attention, give her a different toy or treat. Repeat frequently, until she automatically "leaves it" when told to.

L: Some wildlife areas and seasons are especially sensitive. Where do you not take your dog?

K: Basically I try to avoid places where the habitat is so valuable and limited that we won't be able to avoid displacing wildlife or damaging the habitat. Some of those places are:

• Estuary mudflats and sloughs, such as those on the Mendenhall Wetlands, and at Eagle Beach at low tide, while shorebirds are present (April and May, and July through September, in particular, although some flocks are year-round residents).

• Salt marshes, such as the lower regions of the Mendenhall Wetlands, when the geese and ducks are feeding (flocks can be there throughout the year; late spring and early fall are particularly sensitive times).

• Wild sedge and grass meadows, such as the ones out by Peterson Creek, which are very important to ground-nesting birds, bears and deer throughout the spring and early summer.



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