Tales From The Trails:

Off-Leash Dogs in Forest Park: Tips for Staying Safe and Taking Action

As you’ve likely noticed, Portland is getting crowded. The same holds true for Forest Park trails. More users than ever are enjoying Forest Park, which is a wonderful thing indeed.

But along with more park visitors, so too are increasing reports of unsettling issues. Recently, there have been a rise in reports of off-leash dogs in Forest Park, and unfortunately, incidents of dog bites along with it.

Keeping dogs on-leash in Forest Park is the best way to ensure the safety of everyone, human and dog alike. However, the sad fact is this law is not always followed. To help keep all creatures as safe as possible on our beloved Forest Park trails, we spoke with Tanya Roberts, manager of the training and behavior department at the Oregon Humane Society, about what users can do to prevent a possible threatening encounter with an off-leash dog.

Roberts stresses that it’s not unusual for normally friendly dogs to sometimes be anxious, afraid, threatened or overstimulated in new surroundings or when strangers suddenly approach or startle them, especially in close encounters such as on trails. That’s not necessarily because the dog is being “bad,” it’s the result of their natural protective or breed instincts, which can kick in quickly.

After more than 20 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist, Roberts has seen a lot. “Don’t count on the fact that your dog will react the same in all situations,” she says. “It’s up to you to not only keep your dog safe and in control, but to make sure you’re following rules that are in place for the protection of you and your dog, as well as others.”

Leash laws apply in Forest Park, and for good reason. However, if you do happen to encounter an off-leash dog, especially if they appear anxious or aggressive, Roberts offers these tips:

1) Be aware of body language
Stop. Be calm and still. Hold arms close to your sides, and turn towards the dog, but do not look directly into the dog’s eyes which can be perceived as threatening. Speak softly and soothingly, or try issuing firm commands, asking the dog to do something they may be familiar with such as “no,” stay,” “go back” or “leave it.” Do not turn around, run, outreach your arms or crouch down, which can appear even more aggressive to a threatening or anxious dog.

2) Communicate with the owner

If the owner is in earshot, call out to them and ask them to please hold their dog before you approach or get close. That will remind most owners to adhere to the leash law and often they will willingly oblige if you let them know you are nervous and uncomfortable, even if they say their dog is friendly. Let them know you will stop and step aside to let them pass as soon as they have their dog under leash control.

3) Remember that courtesy goes a long way

Note that for safety’s sake, trail users should yield to others with animals. That includes both dogs and horses, and not just in Forest Park, but on all trails. Move off to the side if it’s safe to do so, making sure you don’t slip or fall, and give the human and animal as wide of a berth as possible while allowing them to get control of their animal. If you have a smaller dog with you, consider picking them up to reduce the chance of your dog barking or running at other users’ legs which can be a serious trip hazard on tight trails.

4) Deterrents: Positive and adverse

Carrying dog treats with you that can be tossed towards an anxious dog can be a positive distraction. Consider only adverse deterrents that do not cause harm, such as carrying a compact umbrella with push-button opening that can serve as a surprise distraction and create a physical barrier between you and the dog. However, remember that deterrents may only buy you enough time for the owner to be able to get the dog under control and back on leash, they won’t necessarily stop a dog from becoming aggressive.

5) Trail users one and all, please think safety first

Exploring Forest Park trails should be a joy for everyone. The best way to ensure that is by following rules, and most importantly, the law. If you encounter an off-leash dog, it’s best not to angrily confront the owner which can turn a bad situation worse. Instead, report it promptly by contacting Portland Parks & Recreation at 503-823-1637, the government agency that manages and enforces Forest Park’s rules and regulations.

Bottom line: please remember that leash laws are designed to keep you, your dog and other users safe, helping prevent unnecessary accidents and incidents from happening and to protect wildlife habitat. And that’s something we can all happily wag our tails about.



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