Close Encounters of the Bear Kind: Bringing Bear Bells on Dog Hikes

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We welcome fall, with its cooler temperatures and beautiful colors. It’s a great time to get out and stretch our legs. Fall is also the time when the bears are in full on calorie packing mode. In preparation for their long winter hibernation, bears are doing everything they can to pack on the pounds. This means bears are busy eating!

In the interest of helping people avoid becoming a snack for a bear, most outdoor stores sell bear bells. These bells are meant to attach to hiker’s backpacks and give a heads up to any bears in the area that a human is coming. Increasing, outdoorsy pet parents are attaching bear bells to their dog’s collars or harnesses while off on the trail.  These bells work on the assumptions that the bears want to avoid you, and that they can even hear the bells. But are bear bells a good idea?

First off, the best place for your dog is on a leash. There have been numerous cases of dogs who have encountered a rather unfriendly bear, turned tail and ran back to Mom or Dad for help, with the bear in tow! So if you are looking to keep your dog safe from bears, the most simply and easiest way is to keep them on leash.

Related: Top 5 Reasons To Go For An Autumn Hike With Your Dog

Don’t believe me? Years ago, while doing some maintained on my property, I had let the dogs run loose. I figured it was my own place, and they would stick close. The youngest two, ran into a bear, aggravated it enough that it decided to chase them, right back to me! Thankfully three other dogs and myself were able to convince the bear to make a hasty retreat. I shudder to think what could have happened, right in my own backyard!

Dinner Bell?

The idea behind bear bells is that they are supposed to warn the bears that a human is present in the area. Usually bears prefer to avoid encounters with humans and would leave. Usually. The argument against the use of bear bells is that the bear might just hear the bell and think “Dinner Time”.  In reality, bears rarely hunt humans. Most bear attacks happen because a bear is defending its self, its young, or its food source. So a bear bell will let the bears know you are coming, and most of them will choose to leave the area.

But bears aren’t the only animals in the woods. Wolves and coyotes are far more likely to prey upon your dog, and an off leash dog with a bell on is pretty much advertising a free meal.

Related: What Animals To Watch Out For While Hiking With Your Dogs

Impaired hearing?

But is strapping a bear bell to your pet a good idea? A pet wearing a bell may not be able to hear what is going on as well. A bell tied to your dog is meant to make some noise – noise, which in theory, is loud enough to scare any bears in the area. If it’s meant to scare away bears from a distance, what is that bell’s constant clanging doing to your dog’s ability to hear? I am not suggesting that the bell is loud enough to do any long term damage, but a clanging bell is certainly going to impact your dog’s ability to hear what is going on in the environment.

If the wind is right, your dog can still smell out any potential trouble, but if you are upwind from a bear, you may be putting your dog in a surprising situation.  While dogs have an awesome sense of smell, bears do it better. So it’s likely the bear will know your dog is there first.

No Association

Bear bells are meant to work on the association that the ring-a-ding-ling sound means humans are present. Using a bear bell assumes that the bears know what the sound means as well. That’s all well and good if everyone has used bear bells properly and the bear has learned to avoid humans. In a perfect scenario, people and bears can share the woods and avoid conflict with each other.

Bad Association

But once again, perfect is ruined by irresponsible pet parents. Where this potentially fails, is irresponsible hikers who have let their off leash dogs run lose. Lose dogs who have been allowed to harass wildlife. A bear weary of being harnessed by dogs, might hear the ells, and decide to go on the defensive.

Bell Yeah, or Bell No?

To bell or not to bell? That is the question. Ultimately it comes down to each hiker to make their own decision. Know the area you are hiking and remain vigilant for signs of bear.  My approach to bears has always been to remain watchful for signs of bears in the area, and to make enough noise that the bear knows I am there.

Bear bell or not, the best thing to do is to know what do in case you and your dog encounter a bear. And in my next article, I’ll talk about what you need know to keep a safe distance between you, your dog and bears.