I love dogs.
Well, let me clarify that, I love dogs that I know. When I see strange dogs on the trails my reaction is mild panic. I know this is irrational since most dogs or their are friendly. It’s also counterproductive since dogs read emotions and my tension only makes them more likely to be tense, but my subconscious reaction is based on experience.
Last year I was on a run/hike with my parents showing them some of the Arizona trails. We crested a small hill and there were two women sitting on a bench with their dog, which happened to look a lot like my old dog. We stopped and I asked the owner if the dog was friendly, and she said yes. I walked over with my hand down, talking in a calm voice. Everything happened so fast I can barely separate the growl and lunge from my reaction to jump back. I looked down to see two puncture wounds in my thigh with blood and fatty tissue beginning to ooze out and run down my leg over the bruise already appearing below where her bottom teeth had scraped up my leg. It could’ve been much worse. A split second delay and I might be missing that part of my quad.
The bite wasn’t out of viciousness, in fact the dog quickly retreated under the bench behind the women’s legs, shaking and continuing to growl. In hindsight, even though we stopped running well back from where they sat, we probably spooked her. Also, with her owner sitting behind her on the bench she probably felt both cornered and protective as I approached. Finally, she was a fairly new rescue and what the owner recognized later, after closer observation over time, was that the dog exhibited extreme fear of people wearing baseball caps. I just happened to be wearing my Trails Sisters trucker hat when I approached.
I don’t share this story to scare people, or to suggest that dogs don’t have a place on the trails. However, having gone through my experience I have become aware of some things that might help keep you safe on a trail with dogs, and also some ideas for owners.
When encountering dogs on trails:
- Make sure the owner knows you’re coming ahead of time. If you startle them, you can possibly upset the dog.
- Stay relaxed around the dog. I tend to also greet them to let them know I’m friendly.
- Give the dog space, we all need to share the trails.
- I know we all love to pet trail pups, but it’s not always a good idea to approach the dog, even if the owner says they’re friendly. If the dog comes to you, that may be a different scenario.
- If the dog is making you nervous, POLITELY let the owner know. There’s nothing wrong with asking them to shorten the leash or ensure you have enough room to pass.
There was one case where I decided to turn around when I encountered an owner whose dog was lunging and growling and the owner clearly did not have enough control for me to pass safely. Always better safe than sorry.
Dog owners. I believe you have every right to have your dog on the trail, and the majority of you that I’ve encountered are respectful of other trail users. I love seeing trail pups and my own dog use to join me on runs. However, a few things to consider to help make everyone comfortable:
- Not everyone likes or is comfortable around dogs. Even if your dog is friendly people may not be ok being approached by a strange dog. Try to make sure they have plenty of room to pass through.
- I don’t really believe in the leash/no leash distinction (unless it’s a rule where you are). For me, it’s whether you have your dog under control. Your dog may be a goofy love muffin, but I might not want them with paws on my shoulders licking my face, or tripping me up as I pass (or jumping on me knocking me into cacti as you assure me you have them under control – true story).
- If your dog is still in training, it may mean you have to be extra attentive of who else is on the trail, and pause your progress to hold them while others pass.
- Don’t be afraid to tell people if you’re not sure they should pet your dog. Just like not all people like strange dogs, not all dogs like strange people, and that’s ok.
The trail is a place for everyone, and if we take the time to be respectful and honest out there, we can share the trail with our four legged friends in peace. My story ended well enough. The owner took me out to an apology lunch and now knows better what makes her dog uncomfortable. I don’t hold any grudges against the owner or dog… or the fact that the dog disliked my Trail Sisters hat…maybe she would’ve preferred the BUFF.
Great points. Out where I live most trails require dogs to be on a leash for environmental impacts though. Oh and pick up the poo people! As someone who was a park ranger for 5 years, if you don’t pick it up the rangers do, and they have to carry around huge bags of stinky poo in the sun… not the nicest smelling thing you can see coming down the trail.
Great article. I have a pup who loves people but is super dog reactive after spending a lot of time in the shelter. We often hit trails to spend time away from dogs and get some relaxing peace where we don’t have to worry as much about running into anyone. She’s great as long as she’s not faced with another dog all of a sudden, but on trails, even specifically on-leash areas people let their dogs off leash. I hear your battle cry of ‘my dog is friendly!’ as they bound over to us, but guess what, my little bug is terrified and she will react by snarling and barking. And it’s not her fault- she’s on leash and she’s trapped and there’s a dog running up to her. If I have time I’ll pick her up and run, but sometimes that’s just not possible, and if our dogs get into an altercation and my dog bites yours, or god forbid, you when you’re trying to separate them, then she’s at risk of being put down, because you let your off-leash dog run up to a scared pup who was just trying to mind her own business and sniff some bugs. Keep dogs safe- keep them on leash in on-leash areas!