By Sophia Yin, DVM
“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. “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. My roommate, a veterinary student, made me call Animal Control and report the bite. 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 my friends deal with it.
Why did Lisa get bitten? Was it something she did? Did she exude fear or something else the dog picked up? Some dog owners might pooh pooh this as the fault of the runner; but take a look at this case from a runner who's also a veterinarian's point of view.
“I had a close encounter with canines while running a couple of years ago and it was actually while I was doing a cool down walk on the sidewalk near my house,” says Dr. Curtis Fritz, a veterinarian specializing in public health. “While passing a neighbor's house, two of his little Corgi mixes came barreling out of the open garage, down the driveway, yapping maniacally. One stopped a few feet away to continue barking, but the other rushed directly toward me and jumped on my leg, barking and snapping. I kicked him away once or twice until the owner slowly emerged to try to entice them back inside. It was only after I turned to go back toward my house that I noted a couple of scratches and drops of blood from my upper inner thigh. I returned to the house and informed the owner, “Your dog just bit me.” His daft response was, “Uhh…do you want a band-aid.” “No,” I replied, “but I'm going to report the incident to Animal Control” And I did. To their credit, they sent someone out, verified rabies vaccination records, and issued the obligatory 10-day quarantine…which the owner ignored, as I saw the dogs out running loose on his front yard just a few days later.
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 these dog bite 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, a month ago right before our running club's Thursday night recovery run, I asked 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.
Then 5 minutes into the 7 mile run, we made a right on the bike path which lead past a house with an unfenced front yard. As we passed the house, three little dogs who were tied in their front yard simultaneously hurled themselves to the end of their leashes and yapped at us angrily to go away. Unfortunately, since we were running, we did indeed go away which then reinforced the naughty barking and lunging behavior. Luckily their leashes held strong. Technically, that upped the percentage to 100, although probably most of the runners would not have considered that incident memorable.
Why are dogs such a problem?
Well, 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 dog has gotten his intended response and knows that he should bark next time. With repeated practice the dog gets more and more excited with each passerby 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 at least 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. Therefore, 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, 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 Cattle Dog mix while biking as a kid,” she says, ” I was around 12, and 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 by during the attack and distracted the dog so I could bike away. The dog had 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 triggered a chase 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.
I have to admit, before I was a runner and before I knew how to train dogs, I was at fault too. My first dog, a Boxer, never chased anyone off our property but he did run up to joggers and other people to say, “Hi.” Once he ran up to a runner pulling his kids in a bike trailer then barked when he decided the bike trailer looked suspicious. The runner irately yelled at me to call him back. I was irritated at the runner for yelling at me, and hey, calling wouldn't have helped. My dog wouldn't reliably come when called. Of course I knew deep down that this meant he shouldn't have been off leash. Imagine if you had a 76-pound muscle-bound Boxer barking at you and ignoring his owner's shouts to come when called!
Then there was the time a dog-fearing postman walked up to the house with my dog in front, off leash. Max trotted over to him to say “Hi” and the guy immediately ran backwards shouting “No, No, No,” which caused Max to follow and try to jump on him. At the time I blamed Max's behavior on the postman, but realistically, if my dog can't come when called when someone is running away panicked, he shouldn't be off leash.
And then there was the time we were at the park and a runner whom I knew started to enter the park. Max ran towards her to play and as I yelled, “He's friendly,” she immediately turned and went the other way. My feelings were hurt at the time. “Why didn't she like my dog?” I thought. “Couldn't she see he was nice?”
As a runner, I now know that few runners want to stop during their running workout to make friends with dogs, or even people for that matter. And if they are running with a dog, they generally don't see the outing as a time for their dog to stop and greet, play with or be pestered by other dogs. And perhaps most disturbing is the realization that no matter how friendly or small the dog is, a running dog can take runners out at the knees! Friendly dogs can also cause runners to trip and cyclists to wipe out.
Says one runner, ” I was in Lake Tahoe and biking through the neighborhood where we were staying. Two dogs were on the front deck of a house I was biking past, and being a dog lover, I was glancing at them as I rode by. One of them was barking repeatedly from behind the railing on the deck, and just as I passed the house it darted out from its front yard and into the street. I didn't have time to maneuver out of the way before it leaped at my bike, and I was so startled I grabbed the brake for the front tire. The end result was my bike flipping over completely and landing on top of me. Of course, by that time, the dog had returned to its yard. My dad, who'd been biking ahead of me, returned when I called for him to stop, and was so angry he went up to the front door of the house and knocked, calling out for the owner, but the owner either wasn't home or chose not to answer the door.
Having Dogs on Leash Is No Substitute for Paying Attention
Keeping dogs on leash does go a long way to solving problems but it's no substitute for being aware of what's happening and for training.
Says Jenny Hitchings, an elite runner who runs marathons at sub 7 minute- mile pace, ” On the bike trail, three of us were starting the beginning of our 5th stride (a warm-up sprint) 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. Anyway, 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.
And one runner even got nipped at during a race.
“Last year while I was running the Turkey Trot,” says Sonia Shenoy, “there was a little dog obviously trying to go for my ankles! I was maybe 1-2 feet away from the dog. It was with another runner and on leash but not running very straight. The owner was letting it run towards me. It was clearly trying to lunge at my ankles. I ran faster and moved away from the dog! The owner seemed fairly oblivious.”
What Can Dog Owners Do?
Realize that having a strange dog running up to you can be as intimidating as seeing a linebacker speeding in a collision path with you. Runners don't know the dog's intentions, nor can you guarantee that your dog won't accidentally bite 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.
So unless your dog can come when called 100% of the time 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. When people approach I call my dogs, stand off to the side, and have the dogs sit or lie down while looking at me so that the runners know the dogs are well-behaved and will stick with me.
Secondly, even if your dog is on leash you should pay attention to your surroundings. If bikes or people are approaching—even walkers since they often don't like being lunged at or sniffed by unfamiliar dogs—move to the side and have your dog sit and look at you while they go by. Have treats and reward for focusing on you. If you can't do this, at least keep the leash short until after they 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.
What Can Runners Do?
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.
Even before this, if you spot a dog off leash, shout to the owner to call their dog. Tell them why. For instance you may state, “I've tripped and 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, pounced on like a toy, and even grabbed and shaken when he's growled at dogs for hovering over him. Thus the several dogs a week that lunge at him while he's running right next to me keep him from learning to be the completely relaxed around unfamiliar dogs on his runs or walks.
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 and growling, it's time to seek a veterinary or (www.AVSABonline.org), Ph.D. behaviorist (www.animalbehaviour.org) or a certified pet dog trainer (www.CPDT.org).
In fact, I tell my dog training students that if a 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. Arousal and aggression are on a continuum.
Runners Can Be Converted Back to Dog Lovers
Every dog owner wants others to like their dog at least a little. But in order to do so, we have to teach our dogs to be polite and, well, likeable to others. 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 cycler and have a good or bad experience with dogs during your run, please comment here!