This is the latest column from North Bend resident and dog training guru at Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs, Melissa Grant, who was recently was interviewed by a friend for his blog about running and how to handle canine encounters. The following is portions of our conversation. Be sure to check out the postscript at the end…
The dog might be man’s best friend, but canines rate somewhere between potholes and drunk drivers for most runners. Unless you never leave the track, you’ve encountered snarling, barking, and otherwise aggressive dogs on the run. Maybe you’ve even been bitten.
Melissa Grant, owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs, knows a thing or two about canine behavior. An animal lover since childhood, she went back to school in her thirties to become a dog trainer. For the last dozen years, she’s run her own business, a charm and finishing school for dogs.
As someone who trains and walks dogs on a daily basis, Melissa sees things from a slightly different angle. Runners, not dogs, are often her worst nightmare. They sneak up on her and her dogs, they hog the sidewalk if there is one, and they often exhibit little common sense when passing. She offers a valuable perspective on how to cope with dogs when you encounter one during a run.
So what’s the worst thing you can do when you cross paths with a dog?
“Run,” Melissa says, “or rather, continue to run. Unless a runner has at least a ten-to-twelve-foot buffer between himself and the owner (think six-foot lead and then a four-to-six-foot ‘whoops, lunge, recover’ zone), running past is never a good idea.”
Dogs typically react to moving objects by chasing them, Melissa points out, and surprising an owner and its dog is unwise, especially if the dog is, say, a 110-pound Hungarian Kuvasz.
“I am constantly looking behind and in front of me and across the street to avoid all interactions,” Melissa says, “but occasionally someone manages to surprise me, and it’s never good. I’m shocked at how many people think it’s a good idea to surprise a person walking a very large dog. And if the dog reacted and bit someone, it might even be considered a provoked attack, legally, because the dog is leashed. So even if it’s inconvenient to do so, protect yourself by just never being within striking distance while running. Call out and let the owner make a decision before blowing past them. Aggressive dogs need walks, too. Never assume that since it’s in public, it can be approached at a run.”
If it sounds like the onus is on you, not the dog owner, to avoid any mishaps, think of it this way: it’s better to be safe than sorry. As is the case with moving vehicles, no points are awarded for being in the right as that lumbering SUV mows you down. Treat dogs like guns: they’re all loaded and ready to go off at the slightest provocation.
While some dogs are bred to be protective, such as German Shepherds, Mastiffs, and Pit Bulls, any dog might feel compelled to guard its home or its owner, Melissa says. “Resource guarding” is the technical term for a dog’s penchant for guarding “everything they consider to be under their domain.”
Dogs wandering the neighborhood might be less inclined to be protective than those on chains or behind fences, but gauging a dog’s behavior can be tricky.
“Scared, stressed, or aggressive dogs can be hard to spot,” Melissa says. “Wagging tails and barking are not a good meter for a dog’s mood. Happy, friendly dogs are loose, bouncy, and relaxed. Dogs to avoid are very stiff or very slow. Their bodies will be stiff and slightly lower to the ground. You might see the whites of their eyes, or they might not move their bodies but give you a hard stare.”
If a dog approaches in a menacing way, Melissa says, you’re better off remaining still and quiet than striking out or yelling. “Stand quietly, lace your fingers together (over your soft parts if you feel compelled), stand sideways (to present a smaller profile), and look down. Don’t smile. Don’t give eye contact, and don’t make any noise. Likely the dog will sniff you and go away. Do not run. It could trigger the dog’s prey instinct, and likely you aren’t faster than the dog. Staying calm and stationary can be a real test of your nerves in such a stressful situation, but it’s the best thing to do as long as the dog isn’t actually biting you.”
I’ve tried both approaches in the past with equal success. I find that my mood often dictates how I react to an aggressive dog. If I’m in a calm zone, like I was the other day when a Pit Bull charged me on a narrow bridge at Snake Lake (a nature preserve where dogs are technically not allowed), I just stop, cover my privates, and let the dog sniff me until he or she loses interest. Yes, it’s a little unnerving to have only a thin layer of nylon separating your backside from a dog’s snarling teeth, but so long as you stay calm, so will the dog. Probably.
I’ve yet to be bitten by a dog while running (knock on a chew toy), but Melissa offers some parting advice to someone unlucky enough to find themselves on the business end of a dog’s teeth: “Try to stay on your feet. Use your feet and legs to kick. Make noise to attract attention and to maybe persuade the dog that this fight isn’t worth it. If you get knocked to the ground, protect your face, neck, and stomach. Resist the urge to scream or pull away. This could make the attack worse.”
An avid mountain biker, Melissa carries a self-defense product called Spray Shield just in case. “It’s nonlethal and not pepper spray,” she says, “but has a sound and an odor that dogs find distasteful. It could give you the time you need to get away.”
Unless you’re a world-class sprinter (or an Olympic wrestler), you’ll need every advantage you can get
Postscript: I hadn’t talked to Matt (the author of this blog) in a couple of months and when I contacted him to ask if I could use the blog here I found out what we hoped wouldn’t happen, had happened. He was bitten at the nature preserve he mentioned in the article. The trail was narrow but the owner knew he was coming and motioned him forward. Matt did everything right and is fine after a course of antibiotics but is even more cautious about passing dogs on narrow trails.
Remember most dogs will never give you a problem but be aware there are a few who will and be careful out there! Woof!