How you and your dog can enjoy the outdoors responsibly

With the arrival of warm weather, a walk in the woods with your dog would seem to be a simple pleasure for human and pooch alike. Local conservation leaders warn, however, that one person’s pleasure can also be a big problem for others and for wildlife.

Several Fairfield County conservation and open space preservation leaders have united to try and educate the public on the risks involved in walking your dog in open areas. The organizations include the Aspetuck Land Trust, Redding Land Trust, Redding Conservation Commission, The Connecticut Audubon Society, Wilton Land Conservation Trust, and The Nature Conservancy.

“While we encourage people to get outside and connect with nature at our conserved open space areas we ask that our visitors also respect each other, the wildlife and the natural resources that make these places special and valuable to our communities,” said David Brant, Executive Director of Aspetuck Land Trust which owns properties in Weston, Easton, Westport and Fairfield. “The seasonally high volume of visitors at our local parks and preserves creates the potential for conflict, particularly when pets are involved.”

To enjoy the outdoors with your pet responsibly, dog walkers must first understand the different regulations in place for the parks and open space preserves they visit. Some towns enforce specific ordinances pertaining to dogs. The town of Weston recently passed an ordinance requiring owners to pick up their dog waste under penalty of a $50 fine and requires dogs to be leashed in areas of Trout Brook Valley in Weston under penalty of a $75 fine. Local lands managed by The Nature Conservancy do not allow dogs at all. This includes Devil’s Den, Katharine Ordway Preserve and Centennial Watershed State Forest. The Aspetuck Land Trust, Redding Land Trust, Wilton Land Conservation Trust and the town of Redding allow off leash dogs on some trails but on other trails they are prohibited or must be leashed. Dogs must be under control at all times.

According to Stuart Green of the Redding Conservation Commission, "We are fortunate to have so many opportunities to get outside, and our pets are too, but sharing the trail requires an understanding of the permitted uses in the natural areas and preserves our communities share. It’s a good idea to visit your local town or land trust’s website to familiarize yourself with the rules.”

Milan Bull, Senior Director of Science and Research for Connecticut Audubon Society, said warm weather poses particular risks to wildlife by curious dogs driven by natural instincts to hunt whether they capture an animal or not. The problem is made worse when areas are visited by hundreds of well-intentioned pet owners and their dogs over the course of one weekend.

“Ground nesting birds can be chased from their nests by free-running dogs either on purpose or inadvertently. If it happens often, the birds won’t return to the nest and reproduction cycles are interrupted, reducing wildlife,” said Bull.

“Dogs looking to refresh themselves with a seemingly harmless jump into a forest vernal pool actually can silt up the pool and destroy egg larvae from salamanders and frogs, especially after numerous dogs do the same thing on a hot weekend. If the eggs don’t hatch, we have a reduced salamander and frog population and the interconnected web of life suffers,” added Bull.

Dog trainer Jason Hofmann, owner of 203 Pet Service is a collaborator with Milan Bull and Aspetuck Land Trust in a series of “Tails and Trails” dog owner education hikes. With Bull’s guidance, the partnering organizations offer these tips to help dog owners and their dogs enjoy the outdoors responsibly and avoid conflict:

  • Know and follow the regulations posted at the open spaces you plan to visit. Call ahead or visit the websites of the respective preserves in advance of your visit to find out specific regulations. Aspetuck Land Trust offers a collection of resources on its web site for this purpose:

  • If you walk your dog off leash but can’t depend on the dog to always come to you quickly on command, keep your dog on leash until you create a better re-call habit for your dog. “You should always make yourself more entertaining and interesting than any distraction. Training with treats, extra affection, games all can make it fun for the dog to listen and obey,” adds Hoffman.

  • Avoid situations where an on leash dog interacts with an off leash dog. “There is a tendency for a dog on a leash to be more reactive. If your dog is off leash and is near a leashed dog, the most courteous thing to do is leash your dog until past the distraction,” Hoffman said.

  • Know your dog’s limitations and behavior triggers. “Be aware of them and use your best judgment before taking your dog off leash,” Hoffman says.

  • If a dog is in conflict with another dog and aggressive behavior is present or seems possible, it is your responsibility to protect and control your dog.

  • Leave no trace. Many land trusts have policies which require pet owners to pick up and remove their waste. Regrettably, some visitors leave their pet waste in the woods or on the trail or even in bags left behind in the woods or in the parking areas. The town of Weston recently passed an ordinance requiring owners to pick up their dog waste under penalty of a $50 fine.