Dog Lover to Dog Lover: It’s Time to Share the Shore

As shorebirds face innumerable obstacles to survive, small actions like leashing our pets or sticking to dog-friendly beaches can go a long way.
A photo of a Least Tern parent holding a worm towards its chick, which has its mouth open, on the beach.
Populations of Least Terns are endangered in many areas because of human impacts on nesting areas, especially competition for the use of beaches. Photo: Tina McManus/Audubon Photography Awards

While I was growing up along the coast in southern California, summers meant slathering on sunscreen, heading to the beach, and toting the same bag that always seemed to spit out pinches of sand no matter how often it was cleaned. Our beaches are some of America’s favorite summertime oases. So it makes sense that we'd be tempted to bring our canine companions along with us to enjoy the surf at dog-friendly beaches.

I apply those same sentiments to myself. Now I live in New York City, and when I got my greyhound Djali, I didn’t want to leave her side, nor she mine. In anticipation of her arrival, I researched where I could take her around  the city—which parks, cafes, and shops would be dog-friendly, and how I could exercise her to make sure she both stayed healthy and wouldn’t let her rampant puppy energy destroy my apartment. And as warmer days approached, I also started researching what nearby beaches I could take her to. As a greyhound, her primary instinct and joy is to sprint freely, and there’s a natural urge to cater to that with the widest spaces possible.

It’s an appealing thought to take one’s pup to frolic in the sand and explore the same beautiful outdoor spaces you visit. We want our dogs to be able to be dogs! But in deciding when and where we take them, we shouldn’t forget the birds that may also rely on these beaches to live, nest, and rest.

With shorebirds facing innumerable threats—including habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and human disturbance—it’s an understatement to say that every chick counts. North America’s shorebird populations have declined by 70% since the 1970s and some species have experienced an over 85% decline in recent decades so when tragedies occur—like off leash dog(s) trampling a federally-threatened shorebird’s nest in Connecticut—the consequences for these birds go far beyond that of a single nest. As reported by María Paula Rubiano A. for Audubon, there’s “a vast body of evidence from around the world that shows that dogs—especially when they are allowed to roam freely unleashed—have a significant impact on wild birds, mainly when they are breeding, nesting, and migrating.” 

For most of our coastal birds in North America, human disturbance is one of their biggest threats. Human disturbance is any activity that causes an individual or group of shorebirds to alter their normal behavior—and that activity includes bringing along our canine companions. To birds, people look like predators and our dogs even more so. Because dogs directly recall natural predators like coyotes, birds are primed instinctually to flee—even if they have a nest and chicks. This both depletes their vital energy stores and can leave abandoned offspring vulnerable to predators as well as to the elements.

In severe cases, shorebirds adapt to humans and dogs by rejecting the area and retreating elsewhere, further shrinking their already dwindling habitats and established breeding grounds and relying on environments with other perils. With these important nesting areas already in short supply, it’s vital that we don’t let our pups limit their habitats even further.

There’s a place for everyone at the beach—including our furry friends—but we need to work together to ensure every creature stays safe out there, especially those that call the shore home.

In researching local beaches, I not only wanted to know which beaches were open to dogs but also ensure I was equipped to be a good steward of our local shorebird inhabitants. One easy way to accomplish that? On beaches where dogs are allowed, remember to leash your canine friend! Keeping your dog close by and out of wild habitats or roped off areas is especially critical during migration and nesting months. For Djali and me, that often means keeping a shorter and more conscious lead compared to a stroll through a neighborhood park. It’s critical that we know where and when we can take our dogs to certain beaches—as the timing may change due to the needs of the wildlife, like during peak nesting season. And some places don’t allow any dogs ever—aside from service dogs—in order to protect the wildlife. 

Across the nation, community and conservation groups are helping to educate other beachgoers on the best ways they too can share the shore. From B.A.R.K. rangers to Dog Rangers to Audubon’s coastal stewardship programs that span 19 states with over 500 sites to localized efforts to create clearer guidelines around beaches, dogs, and protected birds, there are plenty of ways we can educate ourselves and join in the greater community of beach and wildlife lovers. 

When I was a kid, I don't think I would have thought twice about seeing a dog running off-leash on a beach, startling a flock of birds into flight. But now, knowing their importance to the planet and the precariousness of shorebird populations, I understand how important it is to start these conversations about the birds and other wildlife who also call the beach home. We all have our part to do to ensure the spaces we enjoy stay healthy and full of life. And for us dog owners especially, we have the dual responsibility to ensure the safety of our pets and to ensure our pets don’t cause undue harm in the shared spaces we enter.