Local experts offer tips on how to enjoy a walk in the woods with your dog

Conservation biologist Milan Bull, center, and his dog, Edge, led the hike with Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service (not pictured) Photo by Nancy Doniger

Conservation biologist Milan Bull, center, and his dog, Edge, led the hike with Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service (not pictured). — Photo by Nancy Doniger

Aspetuck Land Trust repeated its popular “Tails, Trails & Tales” hike this fall. About two dozen people signed up for the two-mile hike, and conversation focused on finding a sustainable balance for off-leash dog walking and environmental protection on conserved land.

The hike took place at the Crow Hill Preserve on the Blue/White trail — the Trout Brook Valley trail reserved for off-leash dog walking — and departed from the Woodland Drive, Easton, entrance. It was led by conservation biologist Milan Bull, his dog “Edge,” dog trainer Jason Hoffman and Don Hyman, Aspetuck Land Trust board member.

Hikers were asked not to bring their dogs. However, the group met up with many leashed and unleashed dogs along the way. Many of them — and their humans — were eager to interact with the hiking group. Some kept a safe distance.

Molly Hope, 8, and her dad, T.J. Hope, of Fairfield were among the hikers.

“Being with the dogs was fun,” Molly said.

Molly Hope, 8, and her dad, T.J. Hope, went on the hike. Photo by Nancy Doniger

Fairfield residents Molly Hope, 8, and her dad, T.J. Hope, went on the hike. Photo by Nancy Doniger

Mr. Bull, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s senior director of science and conservation, together with Mr. Hoffman, owner of 203 Pet Care, discussed what dogs sense on a hike in the woods, what biologists observe, how seemingly small events can have very significant environment consequences, and the best strategies for having a good time with your dog while hiking Aspetuck Land Trust preserves.

Mr. Hoffman offers the following four tips to help dog owners and their dogs enjoy the outdoors and avoid conflict:

• If you walk your dog off-leash but can’t depend on the dog to always come to you quickly on command, keep your dog on leash until you create a better re-call habit for your dog. “You should always make yourself more entertaining and interesting than any distraction. Training with treats, extra affection, games all can make it fun for the dog to listen and obey,” said Mr. Hoffman.

• Avoid situations where an on-leash dog interacts with an off-leash dog. “There is a tendency for a dog on a leash to be more reactive. If your dog is off-leash and is near a leashed dog, the most courteous thing to do is leash your dog until past the distraction,” Mr. Hoffman said.

• Know your dog’s limitations and behavior triggers. “Be aware of them and use your best judgment before taking your dog off-leash,” he said.

• If a dog is in conflict with another dog and aggressive behavior is present or seems possible, it is your responsibility to protect your dog.

“Be an advocate for your pet’s safety and well-being. Be aware of the leash laws in force where you walk your dog,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service talks about what a dog sees, smells and thinks about on a hike in the woods. Photo by Nancy Doniger

Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service talks about what a dog sees, smells and thinks about on a hike in the woods. Photo by Nancy Doniger

The recent hike took place in the late fall, but Mr. Bull told the hikers that warm weather poses particular risks to wildlife by curious dogs driven by natural instincts to hunt whether they capture an animal or not. The problem is made worse when areas are visited by hundreds of well-intentioned pet owners and their dogs over the course of one weekend.

Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service talks about what a dog sees, smells and thinks about on a hike in the woods. (Photo by Nancy Doniger)

Jason Hoffman of 203 Pet Service talks about what a dog sees, smells and thinks about on a hike in the woods. (Photo by Nancy Doniger)

He said that ground nesting birds can be chased from their nests by free-running dogs either on purpose or inadvertently. If it happens often, the birds won’t return to the nest and reproduction cycles are interrupted, reducing wildlife. Dogs looking to refresh themselves with a seemingly harmless jump into a forest vernal pool actually can silt up the pool and destroy egg larvae from salamanders and frogs, especially after numerous dogs do the same thing on a hot weekend. If the eggs don’t hatch, the salamander and frog population are reduced, and the interconnected web of life suffers.

To enjoy the outdoors with your pet, dog walkers first should understand there are often different regulations in place for parks, which are often dedicated primarily to recreation, versus open space preserves. Being aware of posted dog walking regulations is essential, the hike leaders said.

Even though they may resemble parks, preserves and open space areas (some privately owned, some government owned) usually have conservation of the environment as the first priority. Recreation policies, including dog walking, and public access in these locations can vary from one open space to another depending on specific land management policies.
Edge was well behaved and received a lot of petting from the hikers. Photo by Nancy Doniger

Edge was well behaved and received a lot of petting from the hikers. Photo by Nancy Doniger

According to David Brant, executive director of Aspetuck Land Trust, “dogs are allowed off-leash on all of our 45 trailed nature preserves with the exception of three preserves: Trout Brook Valley (TBV), the Newman Poses preserve in Westport, and the north half of the Stonebridge Waterfowl preserve in Weston.

“After the completion of the 2012 Wildlife Study conducted in TBV, new trail use policies were created to protect and preserve the abundant but fragile wildlife diversity that exists there. These new policies affect the existing 21-mile trail system at TBV used by hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, dog walkers, birders, and others who enjoy the preserve. With the exception of the Crow Hill section’s Blue/White trail, dogs must now be leashed at all times throughout the TBV preserve,” Mr. Brant said.

Ranging from bird watching to natural history to vernal pool study to local geology and many other subjects, Aspetuck Land Trust offers a variety of guided hikes for adults and kids plus special events for members only.

Founded in 1966 to preserve open space in Westport, Weston, Fairfield, and Easton, the land trust provides passive recreation and educational opportunities for people to learn about and enjoy nature, while preserving the flora and fauna and rural characteristics of local communities. The land trust maintains 44 trailed nature preserves and conservation-only properties on more than 1,700 acres and has more than 1,000 local members who support it through annual membership contributions.

For more information, visit aspetucklandtrust.org.

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