"I was running in the bike path and my boyfriend was riding his bike next to me," says Lisa Wells, an avid runner who has run the Boston Marathon twice. "All of a sudden a big Rottweiler came running out of a house towards me.
I stopped and tried to stand completely still but he jumped up towards my face. I instinctively put my arm up to block my face and he bit my arm. My boyfriend chased the dog away and we ran home. We reported the bite to Animal Control. Apparently the dog had gotten out before. He was put into quarantine and the owners were fined.
I used to not be afraid of dogs at all, but now I kind of am. When I see a loose dog I make one of the other runners get in between me and it and I just keep running as if it's not there and let them deal with it."
There's nothing that turns a potential dog lover into a dog loather or a loather of their negligent owners so quickly as an unprovoked bite, a near miss, or any other dog-induced accident.
You might think dog-bites or chase incidents are rare, but if you run a lot in a city or town with a lot of dogs, you know to expect something almost weekly. In fact, recently before my running club's Thursday night run, I ask the group, "How many of you have ever been bitten or chased by a dog while running." About 75% of the runners raised their hand.
Why are dogs such a problem?
One of the most common causes is territoriality. The dog may be on its property and see people walking or running by. The normal response is for a dog to bark. And if the object leaves, the dogs has gotten his intended response and knows that he should bark next time. With repeated practice the dog gets more and more excited each time someone passes by until he's completely out of control and a victim of his high arousal.
If owners are present, they may shout, "Don't worry he won't bite." But one runner says she knows better.
"When I was a kid, one of my own dogs bit me once. We had raised him since a puppy. So, when I hear an owner saying don't worry, he won't bite, I feel that I have a greater base of knowledge, and that no one can guarantee to me, a stranger, that their dog will not chase or bite me."
In fact, even if your dog has never bitten before, in the excitement of barking, lunging and actually getting all the way up to the runner the dog can just react with a bite, especially if the runner runs away or screams or flails body parts like wounded prey. This can trigger the dog's prey-drive. Like a drunken sailor in a bar fight, the dog isn't necessarily trying to be mean, he's just overly excited and reacting to the situation.
Ellen Howard, a veterinary technician knows the feeling. "I've never been bitten while running, but I was attacked by an Australian Cattledog-cross while biking as a kid," she says, " I rode past my rural neighbor's house and driveway when the dog chased me down and bit me twice. Luckily a neighbor happened to drive and distracted the dog so I could bike away. The dog has a previous history of chasing cars as they drove by the driveway; unfortunately I was one car it could catch!"
For this dog, all moving objects whether squirrel, cat or car all triggered a prey-drive response.
The Problem Extends Beyond the Front Yard
The problem isn't just about dogs protecting their territory, it extends to any time your dog is off leash. And while keeping dogs on leash does go a long way to solving problems, it's no substitute for being aware of your surroundings and for training.
Says one elite runner who runs marathons at sub 7 minute- mile pace, " On the bike trail, three of us were striding up a hill, so we were moving quite fast. A woman was walking her dog on a long leash on the same side of the path as us, but walking towards us. The dog, who was on her right, crossed in front of her and bolted towards me.
I thought I was going to trip, or he was going to nip at me, so I fell and skidded on the path and then my friend landed on top of me. Very shaken up, and bleeding, I looked at the woman like, 'What were you thinking?' She asked what happened, and I said, "what happened was, you weren't keeping your dog close enough to you." She was not apologetic and she nonchalantly walked away.
I am so sore from my fall and pile up. I definitely tweaked some muscles. And have ping-pong ball-sized swelling plus bruises and scrapes. The dog probably was going to do no harm, but it got close enough to me that I became startled. The owner should have had the dog closer to her right hip."
What Can Dog Owners Do?
Dog owners first have to realize that having a strange dog running up to you can be as intimidating as seeing a linebacker speeding in a direct collision path with you. Runners don't know the dog's intentions, nor can you guarantee that your dog won't accidentally bite or nip them, jump on them, or cause them to trip. It's important to also recognize that in today's litigious environment your dog's bad behavior can pose a major liability to you.
Unless your dog can come when called 100% of the time immediately in distracting situations the first time you call, he should not be off leash in areas with runners or others who might be fearful or easily injured by him.
Secondly, even if your dog is on leash you should pay attention to your surroundings if bikes or people are approaching. Even walkers don't like to be lunged at or sniffed by unfamiliar dogs.
In both situations you should, move to the side of the path and have your dog sit and look at you while the runner, cyclist or walker goes by. If you dog is off leash you must be able to get him to your side and focused on you well before the runner is near. Have treats or other reward your dog wants at the instant and reward the dog for focusing on you.
If you can't do this, at least keep the leash short until after people have passed or better yet, try a gentle leader. It may help. Even if your dog is a barking struggling mess, the runner will appreciate the fact that you are trying to control your dog. If you find that this is difficult to do, then seek help from a trainer.
What Can Runners Do?
If you spot a dog off leash, shout to the owner to call their dog. Tell them why. For instance, say, "I've tripped an fallen over dogs and been injured." In my case, when I have my dog, I tell people, "My dog's afraid of unfamiliar dogs running up to him." And in fact, he is. He's been lunged at and tackled like he was their favorite chew toy.
Also reward dog owners for good behavior.
Says, one runner, "I give a big 'Thank you for controlling your dog' to everyone who's dog is under control when I run by.
Now, if you are attacked or charged by a dog, stand stationary with your arms pulled in to your body and avoid staring at the dog. Once the dog has calmed down you can back away slowly. Avoid turning your back because fearful dogs tend to bite when your back is turned. If the dog knocks you down roll into a tight ball, placing your hands behind your neck. In all cases avoid screaming and flailing like wounded prey. Realistically, if you just stand still and act like you're not afraid you generally won't be bitten. I've been charged countless times and never been in fear of being bitten.
What to do After Your Dog Causes a Problem?
If your dog does run after someone or cause someone to be angry, apologize profusely. It was your fault. Then fix the problem. If you find that your dog has an issue with runners or cyclists, it may be time for some training. In some cases it's just a training issue, but if your dog is actually lunging, barking or growling, it's time to seek a veterinary behaviorist (www.AVSABonline.org and www.ACVBonline.org), a certified applied behaviorist (www.animalbehaviour.org) or even a certified pet dog trainer (www.CCPDT.org).
What I tell my students is that if your dog gets to the end of the leash and you can't get it's attention back when it's keyed in on people, other dogs or objects people are riding, the dog is at risk of developing aggression, because arousal and aggression are on a continuum.
Runners Can Be Converted Back to Dog Lovers
If both sides do their part in dealing with the issue, owners will take more responsibility in controlling their pets. Once runners realize that pet owners can keep their dogs under control, they can breathe easy and take the time to appreciate dogs and their owners.
If you're or runner or cyclist and have a good or bad experience with dogs during your run, please let others know about your experiences!