Beneath the glassy surface of the water lies one of the most deadly creatures you and your dog can come across in the wild: the alligator.
While it can be thrilling to see an alligator on a hike, it can also be one of the most frightening experiences if your dog is off-leash. While alligators rarely attack humans, dogs running along the shoreline can unfortunately become easy prey.
The reality is that a hungry, full-grown alligator, at a whopping 11-feet in length, can easily take down the largest dogs. Furthermore, alligators don’t discriminate when it comes to their prey. They will eat whatever they can catch, including fish, turtles, small mammals, and most frightening larger mammals like deer and dogs.
If you’re planning a hike where gators may be present, we have some safety tips to help you keep your adventurous dog out of danger.
When and Where Are You Likely to Encounter a Gator?
If you live in Montana–good news– you won’t find an alligator living in the wild. These cold-blooded dinosaurs tend to stick to the Southeast United States. Alligators have been found in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
And while you can probably find a report about an alligator in a Florida shopping mall, most gators prefer their natural habitat of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and swamps.
If you live on the coast or are planning a hike near brackish water, it’s important to note that alligators can live in areas where freshwater meets saltwater.
Alligators are most active in spring as the weather warms up and their mating season begins. They also tend to feed at dawn and dusk and sun themselves during the hottest times of day.
What Can You Do to Keep Your Dog Safe from Alligators?
When planning a walk or hike, always evaluate if bringing your fuzzy best friend is a good idea. When hiking in an area where alligators may be present, you may be better off leaving your dog at home.
If you’re a Florida or Louisiana-native, this may not be an option, though. Here are our top tips for gator safety for dog owners:
1. (Maybe) Your Dog Should Skip the Swim
While it may seem obvious, it’s easy to forget that letting your dog dive into the water isn’t a good idea. Even if you examine the area for alligators, they may still be present. Alligators have a knack for camouflaging among the brush and branches along the shoreline. They can wait motionless for hours before launching out of the water and ambushing their prey.
Most dogs are naturally drawn to the water when they get hot. Keep your dog made in the shade by planning your hike on a trail with tree cover. You can also hike early in the morning before the temperatures get too high.
If they do go swimming, consider a life jacket.
2. Off-Leash Isn’t an Option
Keeping your dog on-leash is always a great idea when you’re exploring a new trail. This is even more important if large predators like alligators, coyotes, or bears may be present. The last thing any dog parent wants is to spot an alligator and their dog freely running in its direction.
When your dog is leashed, you can control where he or she goes and keep your dog a safe distance away from the waterline. What exactly is a safe distance from the water? Experts suggest staying at least 5 to 10 feet away from the shoreline since alligators can leap five feet out of the water and most alligators will sun themselves on the banks of the water.
3. Bring Along Water and a Travel Bowl
Dogs get thirsty, and when they do, they instinctively begin pulling towards water sources.
Do you know who calls these water sources “home”? Alligators.
Providing your pup with regular water breaks (about every 30 minutes) will help keep her hydrated and safe. Water breaks not only keep your dog safe from alligators lurking along the shore, but it can also prevent her from lapping up parasites and bacteria that live in warm outdoor water sources.
4. Don’t Take Your Eyes Off Your Surroundings
It’s always a good idea to scan your surroundings as you walk. Use your senses. You’ll likely hear more signs of alligators than see them. That rustling sound, cracking reeds, and splash very well could be an alligator. The adage that the gator you don’t see is more dangerous than the one you do is true. If you suspect there may be an alligator nearby, be sure you have your dog under control.
Hikes are exciting for dogs. They get the opportunity to enjoy some fresh air, sunshine, and exercise. But it’s up to you to be vigilant and watch for predators like alligators and other dangers while keeping an eye on your dog.
5. Never Get Between an Alligator and a Body of Water
Always be prepared to encounter an alligator if you’re hiking in a state where they live. If you’re walking or hiking with your dog in alligator habitat and you see an alligator sunning itself, always keep your distance and leave it alone. As you pass an alligator, try to maintain a buffer of at least 60-feet and pass by its tail.
What should you do if an alligator is blocking your path? Most alligators are naturally afraid of humans–but not dogs–keep your dog’s leash secure and make noise–they are sensitive to vibrations, so stomp your feet. The gator should respond by returning to the water. If the gator doesn’t respond, cut your hike short, and turn back.
If an alligator is sunning or walking between water sources, never come between it and the water. This can make an alligator feel trapped and respond aggressively. Additionally, while alligators rarely attack humans, momma gators will protect their nests. So, the last thing you want to do is get between a mom and her eggs.
6. Never Encourage a Gator to Look to Humans for Handouts
Seeing a gator is neat–there’s no doubt about that. But they are wild animals. Tossing a gator any food is a bad idea. Not only does an alligator not know the difference between your hand and a piece of bread, but over time, this conditions the alligator to seek out people.
Can you imagine walking your dog along a trail and having an alligator approach you?
This is what happens when an alligator associates people with food. And when this occurs, the alligator needs to be reported, which results in it being relocated to a sanctuary or put down.
7. If a Gator is Walking or Running Toward You, Run!
If an alligator runs, walks, or is swimming in your direction, it’s best to back away, then turn and run. Do not run in a zigzag. Do not let go of your dog’s leash. Alligators can run very quickly (at about 35 mph), but only for short distances. As you and your dog turn and run, do not stop or slow down until you reach your car.
See You Later, Alligator!
There’s nothing better than enjoying the beauty of the outdoors with your dog. Staying safe and prepared in case you encounter an alligator will give you peace of mind and help protect your precious pooch from danger. Remember to stay vigilant, watch ahead of you, and always keep your dog under control.