How to protect yourself from a bear attack while hiking in spring season
K2, the Great white Kuvasz, was on the leash and hiking about 6 meters (6 yards) ahead of me. It was a typical July hike on the side trail leading to Halfway Log Dump of the main Bruce Trail of the Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Hiking toward the lakeshore was pleasant and offered no incident. We reached the beautiful but empty lakeshore and after a few selfies, I decided to return.
It turned hot and humid. I began to sweat profusely. The smell of wildflowers and my sweat drenched T-shirt fused together into something that was undefinable. I had my eyes on the trail itself as trees had their roots spreading out on the soil surface like serpents, trying to get a hold of anything they could find. I didn't want to hurt my toes by hitting a protruding root.
The sound of the waves breaking on the rocky shores gave way to total silence where I could hear the swishing of my clothes and thudding of the hiking boots in a vast expanse of timelessness. Occasionally, a gull flew overhead asking for a morsel of food.
And then there is was. Turning a bend K2 stopped in his tracks looking straight ahead with a cautious look, ears cocked backwards. When I reached him, I was overwhelmed by the site too. There, just 20 meters ahead on the trail, stood a black bear looking at us.
I was really fortunate
All three of us had just frozen. I begged K2 in my heart not to make any move.
For the first time in my hiking adventure I realized how unprepared I was for such an occasion. I had no hiking sticks to act as a defense tool, no bear pepper spray, no advance warning to bear on our approaching it , e.g. having a bear bell on my backpack or on K2 to let bear know that an intruder is coming, etc.. In addition, I was holding leash of a puppy, who wasn't trained for such an encounter and could have irked the bear by making a sudden move.
Having a big puppy on the leash had an advantage, as it turned out. I could restrain him from making an aggressive move. And if bear attacked, I could have let him go to at least act as a deterrence, or so I hoped.
It all turned out well. The bear decided to break the stalemate. It moved off the trail and disppeared in the thick undergrowth.
Risk of having a dog off leash
if K2 were off leash, there was a possibility of it running toward the bear and harassing it. Approaching a bear like that could have dangerous consequences. There was a possibility that if the bear counter-attacked, K2 would have taken to heels and brought the bear to me.
See the video here on how a dog brought an unfriendly denizen of the forest back to its owner.
Bear encounters in spring season
Early spring to mid-spring, depending upon the region, in the bear country can also be life threatening. Both grizzlies and black bears are reported to initiate predatory attacks during this time of the year. The reason is that they have just come out of hibernation and they need to fill in their depleted energy resources quickly.
The book 'The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek' by Sid Marty provides a tragic account of a grizzly bear who fatally mauled one of its victims and brutally injured two others after coming out of its hibernation (see reference # 2)
Another situation that can turn life threatening mid to late spring is when you and your dog unintentionally challenge a mama bear (sow) with its cubs.
If the sow and cubs are on the same side of the trail you are hiking on, it may not be risky because the family will walk away to avoid any conflict. However, situation can be terrible if you and your dog happen to divide the family in such a way that the sow is on your one side and the cub(s) on the other. Rest assured mama bear will charge giving you very little time to release the dog and bring bear pepper spray out for defense, leaving you with your hiking stick to defend.
An interesting story of a defensive attack by a grizzly mama bear appears under reference # 3.
Bear encounter in winter season - really?
Winter is a safe season to be in bear country for they are hibernating. If you do see a bear in winters, however, then it means you are in lot of trouble. That bear has been woken up from its winter sleep by an unexpected natural or unnatural event and is going to be thoroughly agitated.
As far as I am concerned, I keep bear spray readily available in all seasons. Perhaps I am paranoid, but I feel a bear encounter in winters is now increasingly possible due to increased human interference in wilderness through winter activities.
Proactive protective measures
While references # 4 and 5 provide information on bear encounters, the following is my list of proactive measures against a potential hostile encounter with a bear specifically when hiking with your dog(s). In fact, these measures in themselves may prevent any hostile encounter. However, do remember that black and grizzly bears call in for separate strategies. For Tips for hiking safely in grizzly bear country, please read reference # 6.
1. Be aware of the season
As described above, it is worthwhile to know upfront what is potentially aggressive bear behaviour at the time of the hike in the country.
2. Obedience training and capabilities of the dog
During hiking with your dog, it is very important that it knows to stand by you no matter what. It is not required of a dog to challenge a bear or a cougar or run after it when it sees one for a dog is no match for these wild animals, unless they are trained as in the video for bear shepherding. However, presence of a well-trained dog by your side can be an advanced warning system for presence of a bear nearby.
K2 is now 3 years old. He is 29 inch tall at his withers and is 110 lbs. His agility and running speed has pleasantly shocked many a dog owners at the dog park. His size, agility, and because he is a livestock guardian dog with great protection drive, make him a good partner for hiking in bear country, but only when he is fully obedience trained.
You should be aware of the capabilities of your dog when hiking in the bear country and be prepared accordingly.
K2 has bonded with his humans rather than with a flock of sheep or goats. I started taking him on longer and longer walks with me since he was 6 months old in order that he eventually becomes a good hiking partner. I plan to put him through a special obedience training program, like the one video shows, so that he becomes a reliable partner to hike through the bear country.
If your pooch is 'Obedience' trained then you have won half the battle already.
3. Keep dog(s) on the leash
A well trained dog on the leash is under your control. You really don't want to get into a situation like the one this video shows. If I were the man in the video, instead of shouting, I would have quietly retreated to a safer spot. A dog is much better equipped on its own to escape an attacking bear because of its agility.
Keeping an encounter with bear on the side, German shepherds, dobermans, rottweilers, cane corsos, dogos, etc. are incorrectly perceived as dangerous dogs. A rottweiler coming down the trail off leash can run shivers through the spines of hikers with children in the party.
4. Make noise announcing your presence
This is with a view to letting a bear on the trail ahead hear about your approach and letting it slip away for the safety of both the parties.
Like the one in the video here, I use a bear bell attached to my backpack rather than on K2 for the simple reason - a jingling sound can be hard on his ears and interfere with his normal auditory sense.
Do remember to use dog's senses to your advantage.
Dogs’ vision is roughly as good as ours, but they have better night vision, peripheral vision and motion detection that can be helpful while hiking in the dark. Their smelling and hearing senses are much better than ours and can be used to a distinct advantage. Their olfactory sense, especially, provides a window to recent past, present and therefore, near future. They can smell presence of a danger much before humans can.
K2 already wears 3 tags on his collar (for showing vaccination against rabies, municipality registration, and his name and contact info of his humans), which constantly produce a metallic jingle of a mild nature for a bear to hear.
If you two are out by yourselves, like K2 and I are, it may be worthwhile to keep talking to your furry friend, albeit it may appear to passing-by hikers that you are possessed.
5. Keep defense tools handy at all times
During the hike with your dog, you may be more interested in enjoying the nature, taking pictures, and keeping a casual eye every now and then on your furry friend. But do keep a bear pepper spray and hiking stick handy at all times.
Hiking stick is always in my free hand for balancing myself. But I keep bear spray in a quick draw position too. The video shows a great way of carrying bear spray, especially for grizzly bear attack.
Reactive protective measures
Despite all the measures listed above, there is a slim chance that you and your dog may get attacked. This will in all likelihood be a case of a predatory attack or, more likely, a case of a defensive attack coming from a sow protecting its cubs or from a startled bear on or near the trail. In this case, trying to climb a tree or playing dead will not work. You will have to fight back. Here is a list of measures you can take to defend your dog(s) and yourself.
1. Set the dog(s) free immediately
If you have time, unhook the dog(s)' leash letting it fend for itself or take verbal commands. It is more likely that a fully trained and protection capable dog will take commands from you for putting up a combined defense or take cover behind you. Dogs in the video show that they make the bears run away not by brutally attacking them, but by harassing them due to their quickness.
Even if your dog doesn't fight, it may flee for its safety, which is better than to get entangled with you and you both getting seriously injured.
In a more likely event of not having enough time, drop the leash to get both hands free. A free dog even with a leash on may be able to fend for itself.
2. Use defense tools
You got to know how and when to deploy bear spray. There have been instances when the attack was so sudden that the victim didn't even have time to pull the spray out. Deploy bear spray as shown in this video, but remember that you have to consider safety of your dog as well.
You better pray that the spray gets deployed against a grizzly bear attack. If it doesn't, the repercussions can be drastically terrible.
If it is a black bear, prepare to fight back by using your hiking stick targeting bear's eyes.
For more on fighting techniques, please read the reference articles # 4 and 5.
There are thousands of hikers who hike with their dogs in bear country. Yet, there are exceptionally few, almost non-existent, instances of bear attacks on them. But the instances, no matter how few, are there and they have been horribly brutal. I strongly recommend all hikers to be prepared for the worst case scenario. In the end, it will pay.
References and further reading
- 1. Timothy Treadwell Incident--A Full Report and Examination
Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard Incident: Death In Alaska. A Full Report and Examination
- 2. Learn What To Do If You Encounter a Bear in the Wilderness
Learn the secrets of black and grizzly bear safety. Test your bear knowledge before you head out. Learn seasonal feeding preferences, identification tools, and tips for safe travel in bear country
- 3. Bear Encounters: Repelling an aggressive bear
Repelling a habituated, food aggressive or a defensive bear.
- 4. Grizzly Bear Attack! Tips for Hiking Safely in Bear Country by mrsmenagerie
Two Hikers were attacked by a mother Grizzly Bear while hiking the Deer Creek Trail, May 13th, 2011 at approximately 3:30 pm. A man and woman were enjoying the popular hiking trail in the Gallatin Canyon, when an elk ran across their path. Chasing...
- 5. The Karelian Bear Dog: an Unlikely Friend to Bears by mrsmenagerie
Have you ever heard of the Karelian Bear Dog or KBD? If you have not, it is not too surprising as this breed has only been in The U.S. since the mid 1980s. This breed is originally from, you guessed it, Karelia; an area in Northern Europe which is..