Note: This opinion story was first published on AJ in 2015. Occasionally, it gets rediscovered by the internet and sparks a new round of debate over the role of dogs in parks and when that happens we repost it so new readers can enjoy and weigh in.—Ed.
What I say will not make me a popular person, but here it is: For excellent reasons, dogs should not be – and usually aren’t – allowed in the backcountry of national parks. Dogs, being predators, bother wildlife even when they’re leashed. Then there’s canine fecal matter, which carries a number of diseases and parasites that may be passed on to wildlife.
Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of dogs are not good hikers; their paws become lacerated and since they sweat through their feet, it is easy for them to overheat. If a dog gets lost or injured, Search and Rescue volunteers may have to risk their lives to aid the animal. This year, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords, and Yellowstone national parks. Grand Canyon does not keep statistics on SAR calls on dogs. Trail volunteers say that they report dogs in distress, but the canines usually make it out on their own before SAR can get there.
There seem to be many people who cannot bear to be away from their fuzzy loved one for the length of a hike in the wilderness, so they bring their dog along – even when it is prohibited. How do they get away with that, you may ask? Easy. They just say it is a “service” or “therapy” dog.
Bingo. No one may question the service dog. Websites selling service-dog vests, collars and even bandanas, brag you can “take your dog anywhere.” Then they add that they sincerely hope that no one is gaming the system by registering a service dog that is not, in fact, a service dog. Right.
In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry signed up 2,400 emotional support animals. Last year, it registered 11,000. No paperwork required; this is on the honor system. Public employees such as park rangers may ask whether the dog in question is a service dog, but they may not ask about the manner of a person’s disability.
One is allowed to ask what the dog is trained to react to and what, as a caring professional, one should do upon that occasion. Websites promoting pseudo-service dogs warn that one should have the answer memorized so “it flows smoothly.” If the question evokes a blank stare from those who have not rehearsed their smooth response, one can, if one is in a snarky mood and out of uniform, mention that “liars go to hell.”
Those protected under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act are not pleased. Some say they are concerned that the rights of those with disabilities will be undermined by those who want Fido along and are willing to lie to achieve that goal. Although passing a dog off as a service animal is a federal offense, perpetrators figure they won’t get caught.
This is becoming enough of a problem on and off trails that municipalities such as Prescott, Arizona, are passing or proposing laws penalizing the pseudo-service dog. Meanwhile, national parks are allowed to close an area to service animals if it is determined that the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of people or wildlife. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks both require that service dogs be registered with the backcountry office. The owner is schooled on trail etiquette, and SAR is alerted.
Rangers say that they never used to see dogs, but now they deal with them 20 to 30 percent of the time. A dog owner may be ticketed if the dog is off leash, barking, or defecating on the trail, but not for lying about the dog’s status.
Mule wranglers at Grand Canyon say mules will attack a dog. On a narrow trail with a cliff on one side, this is not a good scenario. One wrangler says the half-dozen dog owners she has met cooperated in moving their dog out of sight; still, they’re a hazard.
Make no mistake; there are those for whom having their dog along can be a matter of life and death. When a legitimate service dog is on the trail, the owner usually sets a realistic itinerary and avoids extreme temperatures. But often they leave the dog home, because they do not want their animal exposed to danger or put under stress.
So what, you might ask, is the harm to a national park if a true or faux service dog is well behaved while it’s there? Badly behaved teenagers surely do more damage to the wilderness than dogs; after all, dogs don’t spray paint their name on the rocks.
For me, it’s the lack of respect for a park’s rules that gets my goat, the notion that rules apply to other people but not to me, and because it is inconvenient to leave my dog at home, I’ll just lie and get my pet into the backcountry.