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District Ranger Jay Pence fully understands the appeal of bringing dogs on outdoor adventures, and advocates for doing so responsibly for everyone’s sake.

In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a mother with a three-year-old child set out to enjoy Teton Canyon. The child stood against mom’s leg as she reached into the car, retrieving gear. In the blink of an eye, a dog popped around the car, knocking the child to the ground. As the pet stood — paws on the child’s chest, smothering the little face with licks — its owner snapped photos and made comments about how “cute” the scene was. Neither the toddler nor mother thought it was cute at all. In fact, the poor little kid (who used to enjoy dogs) now has nightmares about them.

So does a woman in her 50’s who experienced a similar incident in the Teton Canyon in the same time frame. While she was heading up the trail, three large dogs burst out of the bushes, knocking her to the ground. The canines’ owners responded with a chuckle, and a comment to the effect of: “I see you’ve met our dogs!” It was a ‘meeting’ that caused a hip injury that still requires extensive physical therapy and further weeks of healing.

“If you find yourself shouting to a stranger, ‘Don’t worry, my dog is nice,’ it’s a red flag that you need to reevaluate. You do not have control of your animal,” said Jay Pence, Teton Basin District Ranger. Pence hears stories like this far too frequently, and they always make him cringe. “If you can’t keep your dog at heel, they need to be on a leash. Otherwise you’re negatively impacting someone else’s experience.”

Last year, problems with misbehaved and aggressive dogs led to the closure of the South Valley Trails to all canines in winter. Conflicts between dogs, injuries to people, and an avalanche of complaints led to the closure. Pence observed that some of those challenges are surfacing again this year, especially as the congestion in trailheads and parking lots increases with pandemic-fueled visitation. These spaces are often treated as dog parks, he observed. People simply turn their dogs loose to socialize with other animals in the parking lot: a practice that is not only unappreciated by other human users, but is also potentially dangerous.

Pence said that while he and his team are frequently accused of disliking dogs, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I’ve always had a dog, and so has my recreation staff Joe McFarlane. We fully understand why people recreate with their pets. We also are consistently exposed to negative affects pets cause other recreationists and wildlife in our professional lives,” he said. “It’s a complex issue locally and nationally. Since our local trails and trailheads are becoming more congested than they have been in the past, the conflicts are increasing and the agency is having to address the issue.”

Pence and his team simply want to keep people and dogs safe while using shared public spaces, and ensure that trails, trailheads, and parking lots are welcoming and clean for all users. To that end, dogs should be leashed at trailheads and in parking lots, and remain leashed for at least 200 yards on any trail. Then, if your dog has excellent recall skills, you can let them off leash. Any doubts about their obedience? Keep the leash on or leave Fido at home, said Pence.

Jess Farr, Program Director for PAWS, agreed: “Managing a dog on-trail is a full-time commitment. If you don’t want to manage your dog’s location and activities at all times, then don’t bring them. Put your phone down, slow down your activity, and pay attention. We all want to have a pleasant experience on the trails, but getting charged by an unknown dog is not enjoyable. Harmonious and respectful on-trail behavior will allow the best experience for all users,” she reflected in an op-ed for Teton Valley News in 2020.

Farr reminded users that responsible recreating with a doggy sidekick comes with some must-dos: bring bags and be prepared to clean up any poop that your dog leaves behind, leave potentially fight-instigating toys like balls and frisbees at home, pay close attention to your dog on the trail, and keep a copy of your dog’s vaccination records easily-accessible on your phone in case there is an altercation or incident of some kind.

“As dog owners, having access to dog-friendly trails is not a right, it’s a privilege,” continued Farr. “Honor the posted dog rules and regulations, they’re meant to protect the trails so they can be enjoyed forever, and to keep everybody safe. Leave no trace, and remember if you’re recreating with a dog, it’s your responsibility to ensure your dog is appropriate for the environment.”