top of page

Leave No Trace in Our Parks: Part 2


In Leave No Trace in Our Parks: Part 1, I discussed how Tennessee State Park visitors can apply Leave No Trace Principles to help preserve our parks. I explored these Principles in the context of four visitor behaviors that can harm the parks and wildlife and impair others' enjoyment of them: making excessive noise, creating social trails, approaching or feeding wildlife, and taking souvenirs. In this post, I will focus on how Leave No Trace Principles apply to dog owners bringing their pets to the parks.

As a dog owner myself, I'm not against dogs in Tennessee State Parks. I simply believe that owners need to be responsible for their dogs when they bring them to these areas. Like in Part 1, I will discuss the Tennessee State Park rules where appropriate to provide a more complete picture of this issue. My hope is that this article is an informative contribution to the discussion of responsible pet ownership and conscientious use of our parks.

Leave No Trace Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before visiting a park or recreational area, dog owners should research whether dogs are allowed and whether they must be kept on a leash. Ben Lawhon was the Director of Education and Research at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics when I interviewed him in January 2021. He noted, "It’s incumbent upon dog owners to know when and where you can have your dogs on or off leash." Even if dogs are allowed off leash, Lawhon noted that the Center advocates keeping the dogs under control. (1)

In Tennessee State Parks, pets must be on a leash, in a crate or cage, or "otherwise under physical restrictive control at all times." (2) However, there may be areas of the parks where they are not allowed. (3) Dogs and cats are allowed at Tennessee State Park campgrounds, and they must be kept on a leash and be with someone at all times. (4) An owner may need to provide a description of their pet and prove that the pet is current on its rabies shots. (5)

Noncompliant owners can face legal or monetary consequences for violating these rules. They could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and could be assessed a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day.(6) Certain cabins and lodge rooms allow pets to stay inside, and if a pet is so noisy that other guests complain or receive a refund for their stay, then the owners could find themselves with a bigger bill. (7)

The reasons behind these leash requirements are the focus of the other Principles discussed in this article. "We’ve got several issues wrapped up in this that leashes can help prevent - those avoidable impacts in terms of pet waste and its impacts on water quality, dog impacts on wildlife, dog impacts on other people," said Lawhon. (8) Let's discuss these avoidable impacts in depth.

Leave No Trace Principle 2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

In Part 1, I wrote about the importance of staying on official trails and not creating or following social trails. Staying on official trails allows us to enjoy the outdoors without damaging plants, destroying the homes of wildlife, and contributing to erosion. It is just as important to keep our pets on trail for the same reasons.

When dogs are allowed to roam, they can trample vegetation and dig in areas set aside for special projects and protected areas as well. When I visited Pickett CCC Memorial State Park in December 2020, a section of a cave entrance was separated from the trail because the federally endangered Cumberland sandwort plant was growing there. While the wooden fence and signs alert humans to stay off, dogs could easily get under the fence to the protected plants. As of September 15, 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Cumberland sandwort from the list of endangered species because it had recovered; a great example of the success of conservation efforts. (9)

The sign states that trampling was one reason the plant needed to be listed as federally endangered.

Leave No Trace Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

Just as we must properly dispose of our own waste while outdoors, an owner must pack out their dog's waste. In Tennessee, this is required of pet owners. (10) There are many reasons for this rule.

Of course, dog waste that is left in parks is unsightly and can be a disgusting surprise for anyone who steps in it. But it is also a hazard to our environment and to the health of other park visitors and their pets.

Some may believe that leaving their dog's waste to decompose is natural - after all, no one picks up waste from wild animals, right? But it's definitely not the same. Wild animals eat what's already in their environment, and those nutrients are returned to the environment in their waste. (11) I like this Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics article describing this as a "a closed loop with no net gain or loss in nutrients or resources." (12)

But dog waste is an intrusion in this cycle because dogs eat processed food instead of food they find around them. (13) The nitrogen and phosphorus in their food remain in the waste that's left and contribute to nutrient pollution. (14) This occurs when rain washes away the waste including the nitrogen and phosphorus, and it gets into our stormwater and waterways. (15) This infusion of nutrients encourages the growth of algae beyond what that waterway would normally support. When algae grows too much, it prevents plants underwater from getting sun. These plants die, and the other organisms that depend on those plants suffer. An overgrowth of algae can also lead to a decrease in available oxygen for other creatures. (16)

Dog waste can also be a health hazard. It can introduce bacteria and diseases into an area including roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and even Parvo, a potentially fatal disease for dogs. (17)

Leashes play a role in the responsibility to pick up after a pet. The Leave No Trace Center participated in a 2017 study in Boulder, Colorado that determined that, "Guardians with dogs on-leash were significantly more likely to bag their pet’s waste than guardians with dogs off-leash, and they were ~11% more likely to bag and immediately take pet waste for disposal (i.e., compliance) than guardians with dogs off-leash." (The researchers also found that the majority of dog owners picked up their pet's waste which is wonderful news.) (18) Of course, there may be many reasons for this finding that more people with leashed dogs picked up their pet's waste than those with unleashed dogs, but it is still worth mentioning in a discussion of this issue - arguments of correlation versus causation aside. After all, an owner has to first see that there is waste to pick up in order to do it, and that's much easier if the dog is just at the end of a leash rather than roaming in the woods.

And of course, one left-behind dog waste wouldn't do much harm, not all dog waste is infected with parasites or disease, and dog waste is not the only cause of nutrient pollution. But it's also true that there is never just one instance of an owner leaving his dog's waste behind and the fact that a problem has many sources is no reason not to address one of them. This is a cumulative problem, and every effort helps. (19)

Leave No Trace Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

Dog owners should also consider how their pets could affect wildlife. If a dog is not on a leash, it may chase after wildlife which can endanger and stress these wild animals. Lawhon illustrates this threat by describing what may happen if dogs were to scare deer, "They could dart out into the road, get hit by car, they could get hung up in a barbed wire fence, they could expend energy that they unnecessarily wouldn't expend otherwise particularly in the winter or during birthing or mating season." (20)

Lawhon's example reminds me of Radnor Lake State Park in southern Nashville. When I hiked in Radnor, I was surprised at how many deer I saw and how close they stayed to the trail as I approached. Radnor is a very popular and busy park, and I can see how an unleashed dog could easily startle the park's deer into the surrounding roads endangering motorists.

Deer search for food among the leaves in Radnor Lake State Park in Tennessee.
Deer at Radnor Lake State Park

In addition to protecting wildlife, owners protect their dogs by leashing them. If an owner lets their dog run loose, they cannot control what their dog will encounter. By running around in bushes and overgrowth, a dog may agitate snakes causing them to bite (21) or might come into contact with irritating or poisonous plants. Also, an owner cannot know how other dogs will react when encountering their unleashed dog. Simply by using a leash a dog owner can protect their pet from these dangers.

The Rules of the Tennessee Department of Education and Conservation warn owners to protect their pets by controlling them. The rules provide that, "[d]ogs, cats or other pets running at large and observed in the act of killing, injuring or molesting humans or wildlife may be disposed of in the interest of public safety and protection of the wildlife." (22) While this is an extreme situation, it can happen.

In spring 2019, a threatened Guadalupe fur seal came ashore at Point Reyes National Seashore and was killed by a dog. Even though the dog was supposed to be leashed, it wasn't. (23) This article from February 2021 discusses a dog attack on a Hawaiian monk seal; it also details the attacks of other seals and Hawaiian wildlife by dogs not on leashes. (24) These attacks could've been avoided altogether if the owners had simply leashed their dogs.

Leave No Trace Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Dog owners should not assume that everyone is as comfortable around their dog as they are.

Unfortunately, I once ran into a hiker who did not consider how her dog was affecting others. When I took my mom for her first group hike in a park, this hiker took her dog off of its leash immediately after the hike began. The dog was so excited to be outside and began running around. He became very interested in my mother and her walking stick and repeatedly ran up to her at full speed jumping for her stick. This was a large dog who was as tall as my mother on his hind legs. To be clear: the dog is not at fault here at all. He was just doing what dogs outside love to do.

At first, the hiker stayed at the front of the group and always redirected her dog when it looked like he was running for my mother. But she soon lost interest in this and did nothing to ensure her dog wasn't jumping on others. I spent most of the hike putting myself between my mother and the dog to protect her from his leaps. Needless to say, I had hoped for a relaxing and fun hike instead of taking on the role of bodyguard.

Leashing requirements make environmental, social, and health good sense. By remembering these Leave No Trace Principles, dog owners can ensure that everyone enjoys their time in the parks, and they can ensure that no one and nothing is worse for the wear after their pet's visit.


(1) Interview with Ben Lawhon, LNT Center's Director of Education and Research, January 28, 2021.

(2) Chapter 0400-02-02.08(1) of the Rules of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. This Chapter derives its legal authority from Tennessee Code Ann. section 11-1-108.

(5) Id.

(6) T.C.A.11-1-109(a) and 11-1-109(b).

(8) Lawhon interview.

(13) Id.

(18); Blenderman, A., Taff, B. D., Schwartz, F., & Lawhon, B. (2018). Dog Guardians’ Perceptions and Behaviors Related to the Disposal of Pet Waste in City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Final Report prepared for City of Boulder, Colorado, Open Space and Mountain Parks by Pennsylvania State University and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

(20) Lawhon interview.

(21) Id.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page