When you’re out in the backcountry with your dog, you face a distinct set of fears. Just like beachgoers, there’s a terrifying predator that could lurk just feet away from you. In the wilderness, it’s the bear. It’s massive and disturbingly fast, but luckily, easily spooked by both humans and dogs.
Bears are afraid of dogs for multiple reasons. Dog barks reach a higher decibel of sound than humans and are also extremely similar to wolves, another top bear predator. Bears also associate dogs with humans, who are evolutionary threats to bears. It’s important to keep your dog leashed near bears.
Since bears are afraid of dogs, it’s only natural to want to bring your furry friend along with you on a camping trip in bear country. They’ll do a great job of alerting you of danger and they might even scare a bear off, but they’re not a guarantee of a safe encounter with a bear! Let’s look at why bears are afraid of dogs and how this fear can change the outcome of an encounter.
Are Bears Afraid of Us?
Yes, there are circumstances where bears are afraid of us and run away as quickly as possible, but I think the more accurate word for their general feelings towards us is “wary”.
They’re afraid of the unknown, naturally shy, and very cautious, so it’s no wonder their common reaction to seeing people is to steer clear of us.
Experts discovered a bear’s fear of humans directly relates to the “intensity and duration” of human oppression. This means that the closer a bear population is to humans, the more afraid of us they’ll be.
Unfortunately, though, bears have become increasingly fearless around humans because there are simply too many of us.
A study by researchers at the International Association for Bear Research and Management revealed that bears are becoming bolder towards humans because they’ve begun associating us with food.
Remember all those famous bear cartoons where they’re always on the lookout for an unattended picnic. They’ve been conditioned to think of food when they thinks of humans, so then they hangs out near us.
This behavior is unfortunately not just a cartoon bit. It’s how bears think. As more and more people enter the backcountry, more food becomes available to them.
The more people there are, the more encounters there’ll be. According to those researchers, the main reason a bear attacks a human is their presence surprised them. This is especially true when it’s a mom and her cubs.
Take every precaution necessary before entering bear country. Bears are generally scared of us, but this doesn’t mean they will not react negatively when they feel threatened!
You can read more about why bears are generally scared of humans here.
Are Bears Ever Not Afraid of Us?
Although it’s rare, bears will sometimes replace their fear of humans with aggression.
There are two different types of bear attacks: defensive and predatory. Defensive attacks happen because a bear feels it or its resources are threatened. They might be protecting their food or their offspring. Predatory attacks are unprovoked.
If you see an animal carcass in bear country, get away from the area immediately and call your local wildlife services. A bear may have claimed the carcass and be nearby.
Another type of defensive attack happens when they are startled. Therefore, you should always keep your dog on a leash. They might be the reason a bear becomes aggressive when it might have just walked away had it not been bothered.
The University of Wisconsin found evidence dogs specifically trigger defensive behaviors in bears, which leads to the assumption dogs often make a bear encounter worse.
Predatory attacks, on the other hand, are very rare and usually happen because the bear is direly hungry. It will stalk you quietly, and your dog might be the only reason you know it’s coming.
In the case of a predatory attack: Do. Not. Run. Stand your ground, make yourself look as big as possible, and make the loudest noises you can. Get angry with the bear, shout at it and throw rocks.
Also, it’s important to note that fire doesn’t really scare bears like you think it may. Just wanted to put that out there.
There are some specific things you should do depending on the type of bear, too, which I’ve described below.
Are Bears Afraid of Dogs?
Bears react to dogs a little differently than humans, but they’ve learned to associate the two of us, which increases their fear.
While they’re afraid of dogs, it doesn’t mean they will not attack them. In fact, black bears are more likely to attack when you have a dog with you, according to a different study conducted by researchers at IABRM.
However, there are benefits to having your furry friend along with you on a hike. They’ll alert you to a bear’s presence before you notice it, and if they’re off-leash (which they never should be!), they might chase the bear off if it decides not to stand its ground.
Bears are also much less likely to come back to an area if they were charged by a dog. It’s so effective that wildlife biologists sometimes use dogs to scare off bears from a specific area.
There’s even a breed of dog specifically bred for hunting bears! The Karelian Bear Dog is used for hunting small and large wildlife and is the common choice for biologists who use dogs when they’re releasing bears back into the wild.
When biologists release bears, they sometimes use dogs or rubber bullets to scare them so badly they don’t come near the area again. It seems cruel, but works well and benefits the bear and humans in the long term.
The fact is, bears are more scared of dogs than they are of humans. Let’s dig a bit deeper on that one.
Why Would Bears Be Afraid Of Dogs?
When a bear and a dog standoff, there is now a battle for dominance between two apex predators.
Both animals have to decide at that moment if they’re going to run away or defend themselves against their opponent.
While bears do fear humans, this fear is escalated when there’s a dog involved. Their sense of smell has already identified you as an apex predator, and a dog only doubles the threat.
Here’s why bears are so fearful of dogs (even more so than humans!)
1. Dogs make a lot of noise
Since dogs are only going to act on their instinct, they may not slip away quietly like you want them to during a bear encounter.
When a dog sees a bear, it might bark hysterically, growl, snap, lunge, or chase it. This can increase the level of danger dramatically.
A dog’s bark is louder than a human’s at about 110 decibels versus our 80. And like dogs, bears have excellent hearing, which makes the barking even more piercing for them than it is for us. So while loud music really won’t startle bears, a sudden noisy burst like a dog bark just may.
Their barks are so good at scaring bears that wildlife biologists use them as alarms to send bears running and keep them away from the area permanently.
Any area near a barking dog is nowhere a bear wants to be, so it’s an excellent short- and long-term deterrent, however annoying it is. The long-term potential issue may be the in the form of habituation where bears learn that dog bark = no issues.
2. Dogs remind bears of humans
Although there are rare instances of bears attacking humans, they most likely do so out of fear. Otherwise, they’re quite scared of us and will do anything they can to avoid us.
When bears see dogs, they are instantly reminded of us because they’ve evolved to recognize our two species as a package deal.
Dogs don’t smell or sound exactly like wolves and they’re almost always around humans, so they’ve developed a special fear of them.
Dogs are common at campsites and along trails with their humans. They bark and mark their territory, causing an unpleasant combination of sound and smell.
Since humans are at these sites, eventually bears will make the connection between the scents and sounds of dogs and humans, amplifying their fear.
This is one upside to having a dog around in bear country, and while dogs can escalate the danger of bear encounters, their presence is annoying to bears and will most likely keep the furry beasts away from the area.
3. Dogs remind bears of wolves
Evolutionary instinct reminds bears of their ancestors’ enemies, like packs of dire wolves and massive saber-tooth cats.
As far as predators go, bears might not sense a difference between wolves and dogs unless they’ve made the association between dogs and humans. Many bears have and they’re passing this fear down to their offspring.
You argue a bear is more afraid of a dog than a wolf because one dog comes with two threats instead of a single threat from a lone wolf.
If bears see a difference between the two, they would eventually sense wolves flee danger swiftly at 31-37 mph, most likely outrunning them (although some grizzlies can get to 35 mph). Dogs, on the other hand, are more likely to stay with their human pack, which can only reach a top speed of 6-8 mph.
Our slow speeds and a loyal dogs’ instincts cause them to stand their ground and protect us. To a bear, this looks like a bold wolf who will not back down.
Unfortunately, this fear may not always make a bear run away. They might stand their ground and attack the dog if it gets too close, or they might charge, a common response from threatened or stalking grizzlies.
Can I Avoid Bears And Protect My Dog?
While you’re spending time outdoors with your dog, there are a couple of things you can do to avoid bear encounters and protect your loyal companion.
First of all, don’t leave your dog alone outside! Take them with you or put them in a safely enclosed space if you’re leaving.
If you feed your dog, seal up any leftover food. That goes for humans, too!
Carry bear or pepper spray with you when you go outside and always go in pairs or groups. Safety in numbers! These are two extremely important things to remember.
Make a lot of noise while you’re in bear territory! Walking along a trail shouldn’t be a quiet experience because bears don’t want to be around noisy humans.
Finally, don’t wear deodorant or perfume! Bears are attracted to the scent of cosmetics and if you’re camping in bear country, these things (including food) should be sealed in airtight containers.
What To Do If You and Your Dog Stumble Upon a Bear
Unless your dog has perfect recall, always keep them on a leash. This reduces the chance of a dangerous encounter.
If you see a bear, stay calm. The first thing you should do is figure out whether the bear has seen you or your dog yet.
Quietly and slowly slip away from the area if the bear hasn’t spotted you. Try your best to keep your dog from noticing it. Do not run.
If your dog has spotted the bear, it will likely chase it to protect you. They’ll bark, growl, and possibly attack the bear.
If the bear sees you, turn to the side and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact. It’s less threatening than facing it; you’ll look more like prey with your back turned.
If the bear comes towards you, tell it to go away in a calm yet commanding voice as you back away. Move your arms around but don’t act frantic.
If it charges you, there are different procedures depending on the type of bear you’re facing.
Black bears are known for getting spooked and running away, so it’s best to wave your arms around, shout, and stand as tall as you can to intimidate them. Use bear spray when one is closer than 30 feet. If it’s close, do not play dead. Fight back.
The SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray is a fantastic choice if you are in need of bear spray. It can spray up to 35 feet and comes with a quiet-open belt holster for safe-and-easy access.
Grizzly bears are more likely to stand their ground and get aggressive when they face off with a dog. If grizzly charges, do not run. Don’t try to look bigger by waving your arms and don’t make loud noises like you would with a black bear either. Stand your ground and use bear spray when the grizzly gets close. If it gets close, play dead.
If your dog and the bear become engaged with each other, do not get in between them! Make as much noise as possible, throw things at it, and wave your arms around to scare it off. If you’re on your property, use the hose or garden tools to agitate it.
What Kind of Bears Might I Encounter in The United States?
There are only three species of bears in the United States, but Alaska is the only one with polar bears.
The other two, the American black bear and the grizzly bear, behave differently and require a slightly different type of reaction if you stumble upon one of them.
American Black Bear
The black bear is the most common species in North America and you’ll find them all over the U.S., like in the Rocky Mountains, the Adirondacks, along the west coast, and in the northeastern states.
Experts estimate there are over 300,000 black bears in the U.S.!
You’ll recognize black bears by their coat, of course, but they can also be blue-gray, dark brown, or cinnamon-colored. The ones in the northeastern states are mostly black, though.
Many times, a black bear will have a white patch on its chest or throat. That’s a clear indication of their species.
Luckily, these bears are notorious for being skittish. They’re less likely to stand their ground and will try to flee in any way possible, sometimes up a tree.
The U.S. National Park Service reports an average of only 1 black bear attack per year.
In the few cases of black bear attacks, however, a major percentage were results of a predatory attack.
Thankfully, they’re easily scared off by loud noises and objects thrown at them. Act aggressively towards them and they’ll likely run away.
The mighty Kodiak bear, brown bear, or grizzly bear, is an all too genuine fear of people in the backcountry.
Because of the grizzly, most hikers won’t hit the trail without bear spray. Campers don’t leave their sites without getting rid of any trace of food and rural homeowners keep their trash cans sealed. It’s just good sense.
Grizzly bears are especially scary because they’re huge. They’re the largest carnivores in the Western hemisphere. An adult male grizzly weighs up to 800 lbs!
They are not nearly as populous as black bears, but there are still around 1,500 grizzlies in the continental United States and 30,000 in Alaska.
You’ll find the Kodiak bear in places like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park; they’re in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska, and Washington.
Their populations are rising quickly and causing a lot of problems for farmers. There’s a lot of debate on what to do about this spike in numbers, but the fact remains there are a lot more than there used to be some decades ago.
Current statistics show that there are approximately 11 grizzly bear attacks per year.
Dogs: Bears’ Natural Enemies
Let’s not forget that our dogs are direct descendants of wolves. A bear will not only associate your dog with humans, but it will also associate it with wolves, their natural enemies.
Although wolf and bear confrontations are rare, wolves are still known to hunt young, old, injured, and sick ones. Bears know this—so they’re wary of all things canine.
Be careful, though, your dog is not a guarantee of safety! Black bears are more likely to attack with dogs present. Experts have found that although black bear attacks are extremely rare, a lot of them start as scuffles with dogs.
As long as you follow safety precautions and keep your dog leashed, you can head out into the backcountry with confidence!
Beckmann, Jon P., Carl W. Lackey, and Joel Berger. “Evaluation of deterrent techniques and dogs to alter behavior of “nuisance” black bears.” Wildlife society bulletin 32.4, 2004: 1141-1146.
Herrero, Stephen, and Hank Hristienko. “Are Dogs ‘Saviours’ or Are They Contributing Factors in Black Bear Attacks on People?” International Bear News, vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 2014, p. 19.
Herrero, Stephen, and Andrew Higgins. “Human Injuries Inflicted by Bears in British Columbia: 1960-97.” Ursus, vol. 11, 1999, pp. 209–18.
Scharhag, Janel, et al. “Characteristics of Non-Fatal Attacks by Black Bears: Conterminous United States, 2000–2017.” University of Wisconsin, Human-Wildlife Interactions, vol. 15, no. 1, Spring 2021, pp. 191–202.
Stringham, Stephen, and Lynn Rogers. “Fear of Humans by Bears and Other Animals (Anthropophobia): How Much Is Natural?” J Behav, vol. 2, no. 2, July 2017, p. 1009.