Dogs at camp

There are few scenes that better depict the camping experience, than a faithful dog lying at the feet of its master next to a crackling fire. And the classic scene of a dog chasing a stick along a beach with its owner is one most of us have seen in television and movies. If you have camped, you know that dogs at camp are nearly as common a sight as children. Dogs do present some challenges at camp, both for the pet owner, and the campers nearby.

While sitting at the beach reading on my last trip, I overheard some idle chatter among other campers regarding dogs. The beach was part of a Michigan State Park Campground, and just near where we were sitting was a large sign reminding campers that dogs are not allowed at the beach. This prohibition applies to any State Park beach that is designated for wading or swimming in Michigan (A quick, but not exhaustive survey of surrounding states produced similar restrictions). The chatter was around the notion that Michigan would be allowing additional pet-friendly beaches, and even moving toward all state parks having a pet-friendly area on the beach. I happen to know that the most vocal among the group was a woman whose family had two dogs at camp with them, hence their interest.

I should pause here to let my readers know that I am not a dog owner. I was as a child and adolescent, but in my teen years I developed an allergy to dogs. I can be in the same house with them, but petting them causes my eyes and nose to run, and nearly uncontrolled sneezing. It isn’t a pretty sight. But, I am not anti-dog. Many of my friends, neighbors, and family members are dog owners, and I enjoy the company of those dogs quite a lot. I just have to do so from a distance.

I did some quick research on the percent of households that own dogs in the US. The range of the numbers was interesting. I saw statistics quoting anywhere from 36.4% (American Veterinary Medical Association), to 46% (Humane Society).  Regardless of which number is accurate, between half and two-thirds of households do NOT have a dog, so the potential for disagreement about their place at camp and at beaches is high.

During check in at many Michigan State Park campgrounds I have been reminded about pet restrictions, and guidelines. While chatting with a DNR officer in August I learned that pets are the number one source of complaints among campers (I also saw this quoted on the Michigan DNR site). Those complaints run from un-leashed dogs loose in the campground, to barking dogs, and – sadly – improperly disposed dog waste.

The DNR sites I looked at for Michigan and surrounding states all tell a similar story. Many dogs act differently at camp than they do at home. The confusing and busy surroundings, the need to constantly be on a leash, and the presence of so many other dogs all contribute to this confusion. Dogs that would not usually bark much at home can become louder at camp. Passive dogs can become more territorial and aggressive, and so on.

As a frequent camper, I have seen a wide spectrum of dog owners. Most dog owners understand and adhere to the rules. They work actively to keep their dogs in check – quiet, leashed, and off beaches. They also clean up after their dogs. But, as my mother used to say about children, there is no such thing as delinquent pets, only delinquent owners. It is those owners that cause the problems for the rest of us.

I read a few articles in various newspapers around the great lakes. In some areas local municipalities have curtailed dogs on beaches as well. And, the debate in nearly all cases centers around one word – feces. Sadly, some dog owners who let their dogs roam on beaches do not clean up after them. For that matter, some in campgrounds do not either. Say what you will about a barking dog being an annoyance – truth is that I can ignore the barking to a large extent. But, step in a half-buried pile of dog crap while heading to the water, and tell me how YOUR day is going. If you are a dog owner, maybe it has happened to you in your yard. My guess is it wasn’t pleasant, and you were likely wearing shoes. Now imagine that happening while you are barefoot on the beach, and it is someone else’s dog.

The problem doesn’t end there. Un-leashed dogs on beaches or in campgrounds also leads to aggressive encounters between dogs. I have witnessed some scary scenes involving two dogs fighting in a campground. I don’t know if they are both trying to mark their territory or what (I am not a pooch psychologist), but I do know that it is a scary thing to see, and probably is dangerous for the dogs and their owners who must break it up.

My personal opinion is that dogs have no place on swimming beaches in State Parks. I also think that  existing leash rules within campgrounds needs better enforcement. On my most recent trip I watched a number of pet owners allowing their dogs to roam free, or on 20 foot leashes to “explore” unused campsites. I didn’t witness any of the dogs leaving a solid reminder of themselves behind (if I had you can rest assured I would have been all over the pet owner if they tried to leave it), but my not seeing it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. On that same trip I encountered a rather putrid, large pile of dog evidence on the trail to the bathroom.

If you are one of the majority of responsible dog owners who would never let something like this happen, then you are probably not happy with my conclusions or opinions. That is unfortunate, and we will have to agree to disagree. But, if you want to focus your outrage where it belongs, look not to those of us who complain, look instead to those whose irresponsibility make the rest of us so angry.

Before taking your dog on a trip to a campground – private or public – be sure to educate yourself on the appropriate regulations and restrictions. And, for the sake of the rest of us, please follow them.


Statistics on Pet Ownership:

Humane Society
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

Dog regulations in State Parks:

Michigan DNR
Indiana DNR
Wisconsin DNR
Ohio DNR

Articles on issues with Dogs on beaches:

Holland Sentinel (Michigan)
Lake Michigan Shoreline magazine

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1 Response to Dogs at camp

  1. Dianne Quinn says:

    I was just on Ferry Beach in Charlevoix , this past weekend, with my sisters, nieces & 3 young children . I was the 1st to realize I was standing in poop,then my niece who had already put down her beach blanket & children , discovered her infant AND blanket had poop on them .
    Needless to say, we where not happy campers !
    BTW, we were not camping 😉 and had a fantastic 4 days


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