Avoiding bear encounters

by Tom Goldsmith | January 26, 2021
illustration man with dog encounters a bear

Over decades of reporting for Ontario Out Of Doors, I’ve interviewed at least seven victims of bear attacks. In talking with the victims, I’ve come to see a concerning common denominator in several of these unwanted bear encounters — dogs.

Ironically, many people mistakenly believe that as long as they’re accompanied by a dog, their risk of an encounter is lessened, or at least they will be safely alerted to a bear’s presence. The reality, however, is that dogs, particularly when running loose, can actually increase the likelihood of a bear interaction.

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski says that ministry’s research indicates that dogs can actually instigate or exacerbate human encounters with bears.

The surprise encounter

Attacks often have a similar pattern. A hiker and their dog walk carefree along a wooded path or road, enjoying the fresh air. The dog is allowed to roam and explore its environment because, in the dog owner’s mind, they are in a low-traffic area and their dog usually responds to they call. Then, suddenly, they find themselves in proximity to a bear. The dog responding to what can only be described as pure instinct and perhaps fear, begins acting aggressively, barking and maybe even charging the bear. The bear stands its ground and becomes defensive.

The situation escalates to the point where the dog, seeking the guidance and safety of its pack leader, comes back to the owner, often with the now defensive bear in tow. Before they know it, the hiker has unwittingly brought an encounter upon themselves and must now attempt to dissuade an aggressive bear, or fight for their survival.

Preventing surprises

The vast majority of the time bears will flee at the slightest hint of an encounter with you or your dog. Being seen and heard is key to ensuring you and your dog’s safety. Bells worn by you and your dog are a good way to alert bears of your presence.

Keeping your dog under control and on a leash can also go a long way towards avoiding a surprise and dangerous encounter.

Predatory encounters

Predatory behaviour in black bears is vastly different from a surprise encounter. A predating bear approaches its quarry silently. It watches and stalks its prey with deliberate purpose. In most cases, the bear’s presence is undetected until engagement is all but certain.

Science tells us that bears are omnivorous and can be predatory. While berries, mast crops, and sedges make up the bulk of their dietary requirements, moose calves and fawns are also known food sources. While Ontario black bears predating on humans is extremely rare, the same cannot be said about small mammals. A domestic dog, having some of its natural survival instincts bred out of it, can also be appealing. A bear fixated on getting a belly full of protein is capable of confronting a formidable adult cow moose defending its calf, so your dog isn’t much of a deterrent.

Preventing predation

Be aware, stay alert, and keep your senses sharp. That means avoiding headphones while hiking, foraging for berries, or tending your rural property. A bear that is seen to follow you or reappears often should be a concern of being predatory.

If you notice this kind of behaviour, stay calm and don’t run. Get your dog under close control and remain as upright and large as you possibly can. Then slowly back away and move towards the safety of a vehicle or other shelter.

Final thoughts

It seems to me that politics and policy decisions have always swirled around how we manage predatory wildlife. Bears are certainly no exception.

Tom Goldsmith
Tom has a long-held passion for dogs and hunting. He’s also an avid falconer and has been a contributing illustrator with OOD for over 25 years. Contact Tom at mail@oodmag.com

Granted, we’ve come a long way from treating these predators as dangerous vermin that threaten our property and ourselves. But, efforts to alleviate societal concerns about bears has tended to depict them as harmless woodland creatures. I believe the pendulum has, perhaps, swung a bit too far.

Bears are one of nature’s fascinating creatures and they play a vital role in the biodiversity of this province. They deserve our respect and under-standing so that we can co-exist in rural are as safely. Without prejudice or emotion, let’s use the best available science to provide sound advice so that people and their pets can co-exist with bears, to the benefit of all.  

Originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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  1. William Leach wrote: I agree with the above article when he says the pendulum has swung a too far the wrong way...black bears that exhibit no fear of humans and keep showing up for a free meal where there are campers and children and pets running around should be euthanized. No question! Our society is turned upside down today where we will murder unborn babies without a second thought but where the average person who watches tv thinks bears are cuddly and stuffed with sugar and spice and everything nice...CASE IN POINT: One time I rec'd a call of a black bear roaming around a campground within the municipality I was policing. I and another member arrived at the campground to find that one woman was putting jam on her child's face for the bear to lick off...now normally folks would not believe a story like that when it is heard but I can assure you it is a TRUE STORY. We ended up shooting that dangerous bear...in the same town I observed a young man walking with a limp and wearing a hair piece...he had a big chunk taken out of his side...some years before he had spend a couple of minutes underneath a black bear that was working on devouring him alive...he had been playing with other children and they ran when they saw the bear..his ear was found in the bears stomach. Nuff said. Thank You.