Guest columnist Dr. Christina White: When bears and dogs don’t mix

  • A large collared bear on Crescent Street in Northampton in mid-June. JAMES LOWENTHAL

  • A large collared bear on Crescent Street in Northampton in mid-June. JAMES LOWENTHAL

Published: 6/28/2020 3:00:23 PM

Bears are a charismatic and inspiring presence in our woods, but we must treat these powerful wild animals with respect.

As bears in our region consume human-provided food from bird feeders, agricultural fields and garbage, they are becoming accustomed to proximity to people. They can be attracted to bee hives, chickens and other caged animals — and to dogs in the woods.

A few years ago, my dog was attacked by a bear in the woods. Luckily, she had only surface wounds, and was able to be stitched up, but it was a dramatic incident that has made me acutely aware of the power and unpredictability of these animals. I was walking along a ridge with my three dogs, two of them leashed, and turned onto a path that I had not used in several weeks.

The dogs were acting strangely, so I put my senior dog back on leash. They stopped, and I looked up to see a large bear, arching her back. She clapped her jaws, making a loud sound, and I thought, “Now she is going to bluff charge.” She charged, but it was no bluff. She grabbed my golden retriever mix by the back of her neck and started pulling on her.

I reacted by firmly, with a loud, low voice, shouting “NO, STOP,” as I had been taught in a self-defense class. It had no effect. Meanwhile, my corgi cross was going wild, barking and twisting back and forth, and my other golden retriever had turned his back trying to leave. At one point the bear had my dog on her side and was trying to drag her off, but I pulled back. Finally, the bear sat back. I told her “OK, we are leaving,” and she let us back away. Thankfully my dogs were able to walk the mile home so we could get help.

I had a second bear incident a few weeks later in a different area of the woods. My little dog started alerting, so I knew there was a bear nearby. I looked up and saw a lean bear 100 yards away looking at us. Before we could do anything, it ran at us, stopping just 5 feet away. This time, I kept my little one from barking, and as we backed up, the bear rubbed his cheek on the tree and popped his jaw. He seemed confused, and finally let us back away.

After these incidents, I reached out to bear biologists to understand what had happened and what I might be able to do. The biologists noted the bears likely were more aggressive deep in the woods than they would have been in my yard or on the street, as bears do seem to distinguish areas that are people-dominated versus their own spaces. The consensus was that the first encounter was likely with a mama bear (I didn’t look for cubs as all my attention was on her.) The second encounter was likely her son, who had watched her but lacked her confidence.

The biologists felt the bears were attracted to the dogs, perhaps after a traumatic incident. My neighbors noted that one mama bear that had been seen with three cubs later only had two, and was acting very nervous.

This is the concern with dogs that are allowed to run freely in open woods — they may be harassing wildlife without the owner being aware. Dr. Stephen Herrero of Calgary has written many books and articles about bears, and his advice is to keep dogs leashed. Mass Wildlife also recommends that dogs be leashed and notes that bears may become aggressive in the presence of a dog.

The bear population in Massachusetts was only about 100 individuals in 1970; it is now 4,500 and expanding. Those 100 bears were likely shy and reclusive, but as the population grows we will have a diversity of behavioral characteristics. Some will be less shy, and in some cases more aggressive, leading to more encounters. Also, because they are attracted to garbage or bird feeders, they will become more comfortable around people.

I have changed a few things since my bear encounters. Rather than putting up bird feeders, I landscape my yard with bird-friendly shrubs. The National Audubon Society is one of many sources for native plants that attract songbirds, as well as hummingbirds and butterflies. I also put my garbage out the morning of pickup, keep my dogs close, and hike with bear spray, which can be purchased at local sporting goods stores.

You can find more information about black bears in Massachusetts at; the Daily Hampshire Gazette often carries stories about local bear sightings, such as this one from 2016,

Dr. Christina White is a veterinarian at Riverbend Animal Hospital in Hadley and a board member of Broad Brook Coalition in Northampton. This article appeared in the coalition’s spring newsletter.

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