Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

dog running at gulls on a beach
Dogs playing on the beach may seem harmless, but their presence can be an unnecessary source of stress for birds. Photo by RooM the Agency/Alamy Stock Photo

See Spot Scare the Birds

Dog owners knowingly flout leash laws, even at birds’ expense.

Authored by

by Larry Pynn

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It may seem obvious that an off-leash dog tearing down the beach, barking, jumping, and chasing almost anything that moves can cause unnecessary stress to birds. But just try telling that to the dog’s owner.

“My dad takes his dog for a walk and lets it run loose off leash,” laments David Bradley, the British Columbia program manager for Bird Studies Canada. “Why does he do it? He says, ‘Well, I only have one dog and it won’t cause that much of an impact.’

“That’s not the right attitude,” Bradley says. “Think about the big picture.”

According to a recent survey, the belief that dogs are innocuous is pervasive. The Bird Studies Canada team interviewed 245 beachgoers at three popular sites along the lower Fraser River outside Vancouver, British Columbia, where signs are posted and bylaws are in place banning dogs or requiring them to be on leash.

The study revealed that nine out of 10 dog owners are aware that the shoreline sites are important to shorebirds and waterfowl. But 40 percent of those interviewed also said that they always bring their dog to the beach, and 15 percent always allow their pets to run off leash—the latter being a conservative figure, since not all dog owners admit to the behavior, Bradley says.

And, just like Bradley’s dad, 42 percent of dog owners say their dog is not a problem. “People often have this cognitive dissonance,” Bradley says. “They don’t look internally at their own actions. They tend to externalize the issue.”

In the lower Fraser River estuary, birds face a slew of negative human impacts—an ever-increasing urban population, industrial development, habitat changes due to climate change and invasive species, and even the presence of birdwatchers and photographers. In some places along the shoreline, waterfowl are open to hunting.

In comparison, an off-leash dog may seem like a minor problem. But as research shows, harassment by dogs repeatedly interrupts birds’ ability to feed and rest, putting them at greater risk during long-distance migrations. Dog owners can underestimate the problems their pooches pose, but they can also change for the better—with a little arm-twisting.

Take, for instance, Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a dog on the beach in March and April, when 2,000 brant geese descend on the area to gorge on the annual herring spawn.

Ever since he was hired in 2005, bylaw enforcement officer Don Marshall has tenaciously enforced bylaws banning dogs on the beaches in March and April.

In the Arctic, the goose’s summer breeding grounds, its main predator is the fox. To the birds, dogs look just the same, Marshall says. If dogs are allowed off leash near the beach, the birds won’t get enough to eat, potentially jeopardizing a successful migration.

Marshall says his goal is to teach, not to hand out tickets, and the program seems to be working.

“When I first started, there were people everywhere,” Marshall says. “Now you can go when the tide is out and see nobody on the beach with a dog.”

In Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, researchers have shown that birds are disturbed five times more when people are accompanied by dogs than when they’re hiking alone. Due to on-site prevention and education by park staff, compliance with leash regulations increased from 44 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2017.

Bradley is hopeful that by sharing the results of his research, municipalities and the province will ramp up education and enforcement on critical beaches.

Wherever dog-bird conflicts exist, he says, the answer is almost certainly an easy one. “Keeping a dog on leash is a very simple thing to do. It’s within our capacity. The solution lies in the hands of humans.”