Dealing with Dogs While Exercising (and a note to owners)

Okay, let’s start with a confession. I have a bit of a reputation for not liking dogs. For a time I would have said that was mostly true but I don’t think it is now. What I don’t like is running into loose dogs unexpectedly with no context. I’m fine with dogs, the issue I have is when owners are unrealistic about their specific dog’s behavior and how others see that dog in the world.

I’ve since realized I actually love dogs that I know from previous experience won’t try to hurt me. I even love running with a dog and talking to them about all the things we are seeing along the way. I’ve also realized that you get the dog you train at the end of the day.

My dog experiences while exercising

I’ve had a few bad ones and never in a place where dogs were allowed to be off leash. I’ve been chased, lunged at and growled at too many times to count but as briefly as possible here are few of the standouts:

  • When I was 10 my sister was attacked by a loose dog in the school yard and but for her heavy snow clothes and old school Canadian winters would have been more badly hurt. (That dog was just trying to play)
  • At age 14 I walked too close to a dog on a long chain at a campground and it bit my leg
  • Age 15 a lab chased me for about 1/2 a km on an early morning trail run and bit my shoe
  • Our neighbor’s dog bit me in the yard, my husband and several people at the beach at our house when it habitually got free.
  • A dog with no owner present chased me and tried to bite me on the trail.
  • See above but this time I crashed my bike. (This dog was trying to say hello)
  • I pit-bull broke free and chased me and my sister’s dog down a busy city sidewalk dragging it’s chain
  • Last month a dog tied out front of a house I was buying something from on marketplace bit my leg

While none of this is especially traumatic it has made me weary of dogs until I get a sense of them. It’s also lead me to develop a set of practices when approaching dogs I don’t know and dealing with the aggressive ones. I’ve also learned it is not a good idea to take owner’s reassurances that they are friendly at face value.

The owners

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “That’s so weird, he’s literally never done that before” I couldn’t retire or anything but I could definitely buy a new pair of sneakers. Also I smell BS what are the chances that your dog has never growled at someone else it merely walked by before? I’m also tired of hearing about dogs who can’t tolerate one specific thing about me. Your dog doesn’t have a phobia of women, people in shorts or peaked hats, it’s just your dog. That’s how Fido is.

We are sharing the space and we are not likely there mainly to avoid, stop or deal with your dog in any way shape or form.

If there is a leash rule where you are with your dog you need to follow it or go somewhere else. The sign says “all dogs must be on a leash” and there are no exceptions for leash reactive, anxious or anything else dogs that give them a pass. I say this because other users of the space, even other dog owners decide to use that space with the totally fair expectation that the rules will be followed. I will decide to run in an on leash park but I will not in an off leash area. 

Personally I don’t want dogs, lunging at me, growling at me, jumping on me or chasing me on a leash and it makes me totally panic when it happens. A dog owner saying that it hasn’t happened before doesn’t make it okay either. Occasionally I will encounter an off leash dog where I shouldn’t and the owner will call or whistle and the dog will come sit calmly beside them. I can live with that but based on past experiences until that happens it’s still unsettling. 

Lots of people like me aren’t excited to share their space with an unknown dog. Some are less scared than me and some are much more frightened. Even if you love dogs you don’t always want to deal with them 28 km into a 30 km long run or training ride.

Dealing with unknown off leash dogs

Dogs are sprinters and not marathon runners as a rule. That means they are incredibly fast for a short spurt but most breeds can’t keep up that speed for long. No matter how fast you are on foot almost every dog will outrun you and overtake you. Most dogs will also catch most cyclists as well. That means trying to outrun a dog is never the right choice.

No matter what breed and what dog you encounter out on the roads, sidewalks or trails you should never assume that breed will be well behaved. Labradors are known to be friendly dogs but I’ve had one of those chase and try to bite me too. You also shouldn’t accept on face value that a dog is safe just because the owner says so.

If you see a dog off leash while you are running always, always slow to a gentle walk as you pass whether it is with the owner or not. Keep your eye on the dog but do not look it directly in the eyes and keep your head down to show that you are not challenging it. Move as far to the side as possible and give it lots of space. Some people swear that talking to it is a good idea but I don’t know if it really helps that much. Don’t immediately return to a run once you’re past. Keep walking past and keep an eye on what the dog is doing. Once it seems to have lost interest in your actions you are out of it’s space and you can slowly return to a run.

I will say that if you are already running and a dog comes out of nowhere I get that it is almost impossible to stop and it’s probably not a great idea anyway. Once the adrenaline and fight or flight takes over it’s almost impossible to stop, avert your eyes and speak in soft soothing tones. Also at a certain point in the worst interactions with loose dogs your body is literally going to make you start to run away. Don’t let an owner make you feel bad for not acting properly because the responsibility is theirs and not on your behavior. 

On a bike if you are a very, very slow biker it can be better to get off and walk. In practice I usually slow down and drop down a gear or two. That way if things get sketchy I can take off quickly. Both of my bikes are a little higher end and I am able to go fairly fast. I can get my mountain bike up to about 30 km/hr and my road bike over 50 km/hr in seconds. On both I’ve had dogs pretty much catch up to me for a moment, One broke free of it’s owner’s hold in it’s collar and ran under my legs and caused me to dump my road bike. So it’s unlikely that you will be able to out pedal every dog. I think loose dogs are more likely to chase you on a bike than on foot.

Dealing with on leash dogs

If you see a dog on a leash in a confined space you still want to sus out the situation. Honestly, its respectful in tight spaces to slow to a walk for the owner and the dog too. If the owner automatically pulls the dog over and holds its collar you should still pass with extreme caution as that is likely a reactive dog. You also want to see how the dog is acting as you approach. If it is pulling and lunging use extreme caution. If it’s a big strong dog and a smaller person there is a good chance that it will drag it’s owner a few steps as you pass so make some extra space. 

If you want to say hello then go for it but if the dog is acting aggressive just say hello to the next one instead. A jumping dog and a lunging dog don’t always look different in the moment. If an aggressive dog is on a leash though you can’t be too upset the owner is doing everything they should be even if it’s very uncomfortable. Reactive dogs need walks too.

Dealing with the owners of loose dogs

Though I have a lot to say after the fact I’m not really a confrontational person in the moment. We have an expansive trail system behind our house that is all an on-leash area even though at least half of dog owners ignore that. That is the reason I don’t run on the trail very often however it is my preferred spot to ride my bikes. Sometimes I see a very well behaved off-leash dog and even though that still annoys me I do try to give a smile. For a long time if an off-leash dog made me uncomfortable I just acted annoyed and maybe gave a dirty look. Now if it’s a terrible interaction I usually deliver “Your dog, needs to be on a leash” with an emphasis on the your dog part. It’s also not acceptable for you to try to leash your dog when you see someone approaching.

Owners should know that having dogs of a certain size off-leash where they are not allowed to be outside of confined areas is really disrespectful to other users of that space. It is more than disrespectful, it’s rude, entitled and can be intimidating to other users of the space. They should already know that there are lots of people out there that are triggered by dogs and more people that just don’t want to have to deal with them. When I’ve accidentally ran into off-leash areas of Shubie Park it made me panic and looking to leave as quickly as possible but that was a me problem..

Responsibilities of dog owners/handelers

Dogs will be dogs and part of the responsibility of owning one is to train it so it doesn’t frighten other people. If you choose not to do that then at the very least keep it on a leash where you are required by law to do so. People are making decisions to use a space informed by the rules in that space. Why do you think that those rules don’t apply to you? I’m not one to yell and scream at people for breaking the rules but if it happens to you in this case you deserve it.

If your dog acts poorly and frightens someone you have messed up not them. Never tell them the dog just wanted to play, that this happened because the dog could tell that they were afraid or that this all could have been avoided if they just put up their knee. How is a stranger supposed to know how to act with your specific dog in advance? 

If you and your dog frighten or even annoy someone in public ideally you will diligently address this behavior with you dog. If you get these reactions a lot I would urge you to consider taking your dog out with a muzzle at least until you can get these behaviors under control. Whether fair or not dogs of a certain size and certain breeds can make some people very nervous. Even if you don’t think your dog would actually bite if your dog is consistently making people uncomfortable on leash a muzzle will really help put other people at ease. 

Do dogs leashed or not influence where you exercise? What’s the worst experience you’ve had with a dog? How do you deal with unruly dogs and their owners? Leave it in the comments below!

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