A couple of months ago I put a post up on the Ultrarunning Community on Facebook after being fed up with dogs going for me on my runs. The gist of it was trying to push for areas of footpaths and national trails where it is compulsory to have dogs on leads.
The responses were bitterly divided and it was probably one of the most commented on and aggressively debated threads I have seen on that page.
There were two clear camps- those who owned dogs and were furious at the thought their dog should be on a lead on a footpath and those runners who had had problems with dogs whilst running.
Before I get into this, I am don’t dislike dogs. I have never cried like I did when I was a nine year old boy and our dog was put down. We often talk about getting a dog now I have a family of my own, but it is too big a commitment and restriction at this moment in time. But the point is, I like dogs.
The reason I wanted to write about this now is after what happened this weekend. As the nights draw in and Autumn deepens, my weekend runs are now during more ‘normal’ hours to make the most of daylight. During the summer months I often ran very early or late and the trails I used were typically deserted. Now I find I am out when others are out and this means more and more encounters with dogs.
This weekend I did two twelve mile loops of a link up run I found in the summer. It incorporates Mountain Wood behind my village, The Palladian Way down to the historic Limpley Stoke viaduct and finally the Bath Skyline path around Bath and back to my village of Bathford. It is a great run and one I enjoyed a lot over the summer and was looking forward to running again. The problem is, this route never strays far from populations and there were a lot of dogs out off their leads.
On Saturday, not one mile into this run I spotted two young Border Collie’s with no owner in site. As soon as I saw them, I followed the standard advice of slowing to a walk, continuing towards them and not making eye contact. Running, understandably, can trigger a dogs instinct to fight as can eye contact and sudden movement or retreating. They both spotted me and as soon as one belted towards me the other followed. I stood my ground as I always do and as they got closer I shouted at them to back off. They both slowed and came up to me inquisitively. One simply danced around me, but the other nipped me in the thigh. I won’t go so far as to call this a bite, but was more a warning/ test.
There wasn’t much I could do, but continue walking with my hands high and keep an eye on both of them as they walked in circles around me. By this time the owners had come in to view, a pleasant normal couple, who having seen the dogs asked, “Did one of them just go for you?” I replied yes, but that it wasn’t aggressive yet was intimidating. He severely reprimanded the dog and they moved on.
This doesn’t sound like a big issue, but my biggest fear with dogs is that you just don’t know what they will do. Hundreds of times I have had dogs run at me and then dart away, with the owner then (often smiling and laughing) saying, “It’s OK, he’s only saying hello…” My typical response being, “How the fuck do I know that when it is belting towards me?”
If someone pulled a knife on you outside a pub on a Friday night and then smiled and said “Only winding you up, Pal”, you wouldn’t see the funny side.
I can’t think of many other hobbies where there is an innate threat from dogs, aside from maybe walking. However I have never had an issue when just walking. Whether it is the sweat or heavier breathing that triggers something, I don’t know, but I seem to be a magnet for dogs on runs and I know I am not the only one.
During the Facebook debate one dog owner got pretty aggressive and said I should simply go and buy a dog of my own. Why? That hasn’t worked so well in America with guns, has it?
On Saturday, I continued my run and finished without incident but wary that around every turn could be the dog that changes things.
On Sunday I headed out on the same loop and a little further along I had the worst encounter yet with a dog. I was crossing a stile towards a football pitch and a road crossing when I saw a young-ish teenager out with a Labrador and a small dog. For some reason, the small one was on a lead but the Lab wasn’t. I don’t know why, as Labs are pretty lovely dogs usually, but I was quite wary. There was no sign to be, but I felt the need to give them a wide berth.
I let them get around halfway across the football pitch before I climbed the stile and started to slowly make my way across at a walk. My theory was they would reach the road before me where the boy would put the Lab on a lead as well and I could walk up to the road, cross and continue my run. As they neared the road I was about halfway across the pitch and this is when the Lab spotted me. It went utterly berserk.
Whether it felt I was a threat as there was no one else around I don’t know, but it literally shredded grass as it sped towards me from 100 yards away, teeth bared and barking and growling. I had absolutely nowhere to go and was completely exposed. I now know what is meant by ‘fight or flight’. All I could do was shout as loud as I could for it to back off, stand my ground and lunge when the time came. I was hoping it would be like all the other times when at the last minute it would veer around and just bark, trying to intimidate me. Yet it felt different. Around five yards away it made a lunge to launch up at me. Being stood still, I was in a good position to dart to the left and see it sail past me. I must have been screaming my head off at this point, as the boy ran over in tears shouting at the dog to back down. The dog pivoted and made a move for me again, where I swung my water bottle at it and it backed away. By this time, the boy arrived and dived on the dog. In credit to him, he was so distraught and did all he could to control the dog. I imagine last night he was more upset than me.
I ran for the gate, vaulted it and was safely on the pavement. Had it been an adult there, I genuinely think it could have turned nasty. I was shaking, buzzing with adrenaline and anger, but what was the point in shouting at the boy?
The thing is, I am a grown man, but what if the other person in the field had been a child. By all definitions this dog was dangerously out of control. It should not be allowed in a public place off the lead. There is a lot of press about dangerous breeds, but Politicians are scared to anger dog owners and so normal dogs that have aggressive tendencies have no monitoring whatsoever. I know people will be reading this and thinking up ways to defend the dog. Honestly- I did nothing wrong, I followed every bit of advice but was scared shitless by an out of control dog. If I had turned and run away I have no doubt at all it would have jumped onto my back and taken me to the ground where god knows what might have happened.
Trail running is the third fast growing individual participation sport in the UK, after cycling and triathlons. I don’t want to have to just run on the road. I want to get out in nature and enjoy the beautiful countryside the UK has to offer. But at some point, something is going to happen to me, a dog or its owner. It is just a matter of time. And I know a huge amount of runners who have been bitten.
I genuinely feel, like with certain livestock, there should be only certain places that are well marked that a dog can run off the lead. These should be fenced. I am not saying dogs should not be allowed on footpaths, they should be allowed anywhere but only on a lead. Why should someone have the right to let run free something that can intimidate and upset other users of that area? I believe if you take the responsibility of owning a dog, you also bear the responsibility of having a garden big enough to exercise that dog away from other members of the public or you must use designated, fenced areas where dogs can run free.
The alternative would be to have an equivalent to a cycling proficiency test. Impossible to administer, I know, but someone should not be allowed in a public place with a dog off a lead if they can’t control it and prove they can control it. It is that simple.
I know of some runners who now carry pepper spray with them or alarm systems that emit a high pitched noise that scares a dog. My fear with both of these is that they could send a dog even more wild, so I won’t be using any. But if anyone does have any suggestions or tips, I would love to hear from you.
If you agree with me, share this and let’s try and do something. If you don’t, I’d welcome your responses too. I think it is something that needs debating.