Dogs may be known as man’s best friend but they are often a runner’s worst nightmare. While fearing an attack from a dog is not necessarily top of mind during every step of every run, the sight of a dog on the loose, the jarring growls from behind a fence or even the innocent jingle of a collar in the dark is enough to strike terror to bone. Will that chain hold? Is that gate closed? Can I get away before it bites me?
“Normally I love dogs, but in the area I’m running there are a lot of nasty dogs,” said EVELINRUNS in a comment to a post from earlier this month where I asked runners to share their fears. “They are growling and/or barking at me or chasing me down the road, and not in a good way.
“Sometimes the dogs make me stop for minutes, losing my pace, just to be able to gather courage to get past them.”
There are dogs in my neighbourhood, too, that get all excited behind their fences when I run past. Most of my favourite routes avoid that street for that reason.
At a very basic level, a dog’s primal instincts seem to kick in at the sight of someone running by. A dog is a predator after all. Prey drive is as natural to dogs as it is to wolves, said Cat Cino, an expert in canine training and behaviour, and dogs easily aroused by movement pose a great risk.
So, as runner, if merely doing what we do makes us prey, what can we do?
“Runners who encounter a dog during a run should stop running and shouldn’t turn their backs on a dog that is displaying any signs of aggression,” said Kevin Strooband, executive director of the Lincoln County Humane Society in St. Catharines, ON. Signs include : barking and growling, head and ears held high, tail straight up and wagging in short movements, fur up around the back of neck and shoulders. A dog looking at you out of the corners of its eyes should also be watched closely.
Because dogs have coexisted with humans for a long time, a loose dog may respond to someone projecting confidence. Try telling the dog to go home, Strooband said, adding this is a well-known command some dogs will respond too.
Disengage when possible and leave the area, he adds. Do not move towards the dog. Instead, stand sideways and avoid direct eye contact because this may increase the dog’s aggression. Don’t crouch down: this just moves your face closer to a dog that could possibly bite you.
On the other hand, Strooband adds, dogs that are wagging their tails with their head and ears low, not growling and continually moving in a friendly way will generally be okay to interact with.
“However, caution must still be given to any dog encountered on a run,” Strooband reaffirms.
Dogs can attack for different reasons: some are fearful while others enjoy the thrill of the hunt, said Cino. A confident, aggressive dog will not be intimidated by yelling, will keep you in perfect site and stare you down. This dog is often quiet and may wag his tail. Don’t be fooled, though. This dog would be happy to bite you. And if this dog wants to hurt you, protection may be your only option.
“Carrying anything that will give the dog a target to bite, such as a leather strap, a baton or at least picking up a large stick, will provide you with minimal protection,” said Cino. Your best response, she adds, may be to feed the dog your arm. Keep it pressed in his mouth so you can maneuver towards safety. Cino said she used this defense to escape an encounter with a large, aggressive dog.
“He didn’t want to bite me, he wanted to kill me,” Cino said. “Although he took several bites before I could feed him an arm, I survived and walked away with little injury.”
If you ever fall to ground during an encounter with an aggressive dog, Cino said to tuck and cover yourself.
A loud, quick-moving dog may appear frantic. He may try circling you to take a cheap bite. This dog is reactive and any large movements may end up being a target for him. Test minimal gestures to see if he takes the bait, then try moving away towards an obstacle for protection.
A fearful dog who approaches aggressively will often lunge back and forth. He is uncertain about your presence, in panic mode and may not hear your commands. If his hair is up between his shoulders he is trying to look scary, Cino said.
“A dog who fits this description had a choice to avoid you,” Cino said. “For that reason, his aggression may be your greatest risk. Keep him in front of you at all times and watch his eyes to see where he is looking.”
Some dogs are lurkers that wait under bushes to ambush their prey, Cino adds.
“If you’re lucky, this dog will merely enjoy sending chills down your neck more than actually taking a chunk out of you,” Cino said.
If a dog bites or runs at large, victims should seek medical attention and, if necessary, call 911, Strooband said. When practical, call the local SPCA or pound to investigate the running or bite incident. It is important for the investigation to get as much information as possible for the attending agencies.
Not every encounter with a loose dog will end with a bite, but it can happen. While there is always risk, dog attacks do not make running any less safe than any other outdoor activity. As runners, we can take precautions: we can carry cell phones in case we need to phone for help. We can run with a buddy or a group so we are not alone. I like to stick to familiar areas: loose dogs can still roam residential neighbourhoods but I take comfort there will be people around who may hear the commotion or my calls for help.
“As runners, you must always be aware of your surroundings,” Cino said. “Be careful not to get so in the zone that you miss the signs of danger.”