I really love dogs. All kinds of dogs. I have two and relish running trails with them. They’re a gift of companionship, loyalty and playfulness that’s nearly impossible to match in this world.
But there’s nothing I loathe more than getting charged by a dog that’s off leash while I’m out running on a trail.
It can be downright scary, especially if I’m running with one of my dogs. Is the oncoming dog going to attack me? Or my dog? It sure seems that way. Why else would they be charging full-throttle in my direction?
Here’s the thing: I have been bitten by five dogs in my life and four of those have come while running trails. I have scars to prove it, including one permanent scratch mark left from a Doberman’s fang in awkwardly close proximity to my junk. (OK, maybe that’s the real reason I find a charging dog so damn scary.)
Here’s the thing: I have been bitten by five dogs in my life and four of those have come while running trails. I have scars to prove it, including one permanent scratch mark left from a Doberman’s fang in awkwardly close proximity to my junk.
As much as I love dogs, love running with dogs and think it’s great that people take their dogs running and hiking, I’m often puzzled at dog owners I encounter on the trails who let their dogs roam free and don’t seem to have a care in the world how their canine companion approaches other people and pups. I understand that an oncoming runner can seem threatening, although not one like me who is often chugging along at an ultra shuffle pace. But what I am more perplexed about is why those dog owners don’t seem to realize the magnitude of the problem.
Often I’ll hear something like, “It’s OK! My dog is friendly. He won’t bite.”
Um, sure, but he has teeth and he’s running at me with his mouth open like I have chunks of sirloin steak hanging from my hydration pack, so I’m not really sure I should believe you.
Worse than that, I typically hear nothing at all, partially because the oncoming dog is barking so loudly that your annoyingly passive voice got drowned out. Depending on direction of the wind, those aggressive barks often sound pretty gangster to me. “Woof! Woof! I’m coming to tear the flesh from your bones, you slow-assed, hobby jogger! Woof! Woof!”
It’s almost like a cartoon, but it’s a real live foaming-at-the-mouth wolf-dog. Still, if it was a cartoon dog in pit-bull pajamas I encountered in a dream, I might still be just as terrified.
Usually—but not always—just as the dog gets close to me, I come to realize it’s just a bluff charge and not a blitzkrieg that ends in a bite. The dog typically darts into a wide arc and starts bouncing around, playfully wagging its tail as if it’s ready for some good-natured roughhousing.
I’m sure it’s a common dog behavioral trait, but how the f#%& am I supposed to know that?
Although I’ve gotten rushed many times (and, yes, bitten by only a few), I rarely say anything to the dog owner. Unfortunately, most of the ill-repute dog owners don’t even acknowledge the terrifying experience I just went through.
But one time after getting charged by some sort of smallish but aggressively barking white terrier while running on a popular trail recently with Sandy, my playful but decidedly anti-social Airedale, I decided to politely speak up.
“Hey, it would be great if you could control your dog,” I said genuinely after the incident had calmed down. “That was a bit stressful there for us.”
To which the middle-aged woman holding a leash and walking toward me responded: “F*#% you! Dogs are allowed off-leash here. She isn’t bothering you!”
I was pretty clear that I was referring to that horrific moment about 30 seconds ago when I nearly wet myself because all that stood between me and her dog’s teeth was a skimpy pair of nylon split shorts.
Well, no, she isn’t now, I thought, but I was pretty clear that I was referring to that horrific moment about 30 seconds ago when I nearly wet myself because all that stood between me and her dog’s teeth was a skimpy pair of nylon split shorts. I was at a loss for words on that one, so I just rolled my eyes and ran on by.
But then something magical happened. As Sandy and I continued on our way, her dog, aka, Chewy, took chase again and ran after us.
Oh, I thought, this is a game I can win. Sandy instinctively started running at tempo pace along the meandering singletrack and I followed suit. Chewy took the bait and tried to keep up. I could hear someone who sounded a lot like the leash-carrying vixen in the distance yelling for Chewy at the top of her lungs, but Chewy was apparently hard of hearing or just didn’t care.
By then we were easily 200 yards down the trail and picking up speed. Suddenly, I realized the three of us were all in full gallop and enjoying an idyllic trail run, a 10-legged blur of furry paws, and dusty Altras.
“Come on, Chewy, good girl! Come on, girl, you can keep up!” I heard a voice exclaim that oddly sounded a lot like mine.
By now we were a good quarter-mile away from the scene of the faux-attack and I can only assume that Melanie Manners was starting to get concerned. Sandy and I beelined for the open-space gate about 100 yards ahead and Chewy, of course, kept coming.
We all arrived at the same time, so I opened the gate and we all entered that next section of the park together and discovered a huge sloppy mud puddle in front of us. I controlled Sandy on her leash, but she wasn’t particularly interested in the sloppy mud. Chewy, however, was hot and thirsty and riled up, so she waded right in, and, given her hyperactive predilection, not only gulped up some of the dirty water but also rolled around in it a bit, immediately making her look like a dirty dish rag that had just swiped up spilled gravy.
Oh, that ought to do it, I thought, as I spied Chewy’s panicked owner briskly walking toward us from about 200 yards away. I jumped back and forth excitedly with Sandy’s leash in my hand as I called Chewy’s name, encouraging her to keep rolling around. Sandy played along with a couple of instigating barks and Chewy did the rest of the dirty work herself.
At that point, I opened the gate and sent her on her way back to her kind-hearted owner, offering a wave to the woman in distance. Sandy and I continued on our way, snickering as we trotted along the singletrack back to my truck.
Brian Metzler is a contributing editor to Trail Runner.