Bombing the downhill on a crisp fall day, enjoying the smell and the sound of the leaves crunching under my feet. I round the corner of a switchback almost in flight, and then stop dead in my tracks at the sight before me. The perspiration that was already on my forehead seems to intensify. My heart begins to race, my palms to sweat…I look to my left and to my right and see that I have nowhere to go. To many, actually to most, they wouldn’t stop, they wouldn’t be afraid and as much as I try not to be, but I am. The off-leash dog in front of me is probably the sweetest most gentle animal on Earth, but I don’t know that and I don’t know that dog.
I’ve hesitated to write this post for months. Trail runners and dogs are like trail runners and beer! They kind of go hand in hand. Almost every person I know who runs trails has a dog or runs with a dog, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else loves your dog or feels safe when they come upon an unleashed unfamiliar dog on the trail.
Two years ago, I was running in a big organized training run on a very familiar and popular trail in Northern California. I was running with my friend along a wide path that was full of runners, hikers and families all out enjoying their afternoon. Many had dogs on leash.
As I passed one couple with two leashed dogs, I noticed the dog out of the corner of my eye. I have passed tons of leashed and unleashed dogs in my years on the trails, but nothing, nothing prepared me for what was about to happen.
Without warning or provocation, this dog lunged across the path and bit me on my hip and thigh. It happened so fast I didn’t even comprehend what had exactly happened. I faltered and bent over in intense pain and in complete shock. My friend, thankfully, had her wits about her and instantly jumped into action. “Did he just bite you?” she asked, and all I could do was grunt, “Yes, on my hip.”
The owners, to be fair were completely shocked, “I can’t believe this! He’s never ever done anything like this before! He’s a sweet dog. Are you okay?” My friend immediately grabbed my phone and took photos of the dog, the people, my bite. She got their phone numbers and gave them mine. She inquired about his recent shots etc.
While all of this was going on, more runners from this organized run were coming up behind us curious as to the commotion on the trail. The dog, the one that had just bitten me, lunged again and this time, his next victim wasn’t as lucky. The dog had bit her forearm, severely. I had to give her my bandana to tourniquet the blood that was flowing. Luckily for all of us, the finish line was only a mile and a half away.
My physical wounds eventually healed, but it took a while and that was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt (and I have given birth to two kids!), but the mental and emotional trauma that was created on that day, is something that lives on inside of me.
I am not writing this to shame or tell anyone not to run with their dogs. I am animal lover through and through, just ask my husband (if I bring home another animal I may need a new home). I realize that dogs provide comfort and are often used for safety when trail running. I am writing this because I want to make you aware or maybe remind you that not everyone feels safe around your dog. I’m glad it was me instead of a child who encountered that dog because their tiny face would have been eye level with him.
I am writing this to remind you that maybe running with your dog on a leash, especially on populated trails, is something to think about and to make sure the leash is the correct size for your dog and the trail you are running on. The dog that bit me was on a leash, but a long leash and as I later found out, not one that was appropriate for that breed of dog.
Even though your dog is considered as family and you think that you know your dog inside and out, they do have minds of their own, and you never know what may spook them. Dogs and most animals for that matter can sense fear and tension, and no matter how hard I try and hide those emotions, I am sure I am exuding it as I pass.
Please don’t stop running with your best four-legged running partner but do assume that everyone you encounter on the trail may not be all warm and fuzzy when it comes to your furry friend and that your dog can most definitely sense that. Today when I run, I often stop and move to the side of the trail, just like with horses. I wait until I see the dog’s owner. Sometimes I inquire if the dog is “friendly” and the owner always says yes … I am sure the owner of the dog that bit me did the same until that day two years ago.