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Dog Attack! A Runner’s Worst Nightmare and 5 Tips For Preventing It [Have you ever had a wildlife encounter on a run?]

Posted May 28 2013 1:21am


Signing the paperwork to buy a house is entertaining for so many reasons. First, because it’s like 2,000 pages long of legalese eventually you just stop bothering to read anything. Let me tell you, when it comes to living on the edge, skydiving has nothing on the rush you get from signing your life away for the next 30 years without even knowing exactly what you’re signing! Wheee! Second, all the addenda are knee-slapping hilarious. For instance, one page from the EPA informed us that there was once a Superfund site up the mountain due to an old factory that made plutonium triggers. Now it’s a lovely wildlife preserve. With two-headed deer. (Kidding. I hope. They swear it was totally cleaned up.) But the one that really got me was the note about all the animals in the vicinity. Since we will be living up in the mountains (yay!!), there are lots of prairie dogs, bunnies and coyotes about. Oh, and mountain lions. “There was a runner who was killed by one a couple years back…” the woman started explaining as she handed me a pen to sign. And that’s how a hundred nightmares are born, kids!

Almost every outdoors runner has a story about an up-close-and-personal encounter with an animal (and every indoor runner has a story about an up-close-and-personal encounter with a gym rat) but these days the news is all about dogs. There have been some pretty sensational stories of late with the most recent one being the fatal mauling of a 63-year-old woman during her morning run in Littlerock, California.

A jogger found dead on the side of the road: The story sparks one of our deepest fears as women runners. But this time the culprit wasn’t an escaped criminal or psychotic ex. It was just a dog. Or, rather, a pack of them. After an eyewitness in a car came across the attack in progress and called 911, the police quickly seized eight dogs – six pit bulls and two mixed breed – that were identified by the eyewitness as the attackers. This attack was the 5th fatality this year attributed to “wild” pit bulls in California, including a 9-month-old baby. (Egads.) So when Shape asked me to cover this story and interview dog experts about what to do in this situation, I was all over it. After all, who hasn’t run into a dog on their run?

But when I posted about it on Facebook, things quickly got heated about the pit bull aspect of the story. I was surprised – I hadn’t realized that one breed could spark such controversy – but it became clear that there are many many people who love their pits and hate when they get blamed for attacks. Several friends e-mailed me asking me not to use the breed of the dogs in my story at all, feeling that pits already get such a bad rap. While I am ID’ing the breed in this post – mostly because it was included in the original AP article and seems germane to the story – my editor and I decided to keep the Shape article more generic and just talked about threatening dogs in general.

On the other side however, another friend sent me her story on Facebook and while I ended up not being able to use it for Shape I wanted to share it here because so many other runners have been in a similar situation. Jennifer Michaels can sympathize with these stories all too well – because she lived it. Taking a run through her quiet Maui neighborhood one morning she heard a dog running up behind her. “I wasn’t scared of dogs,” she says. “I love animals, so I stopped and turned and knelt down saying ‘It’s okay’.” But the dog – Jennifer ID’d it as a pit bull – wasn’t coming up to get a scratch behind the ears. Instead the dog lunged for her throat. Bringing her arm up quickly she managed to deflect the dog – but not before it bit her face. Screaming for help, she continued to “bash” the dog, all the while feeling blood running off her chin.

The owner finally came out and called off the dog but offered her no help. Jennifer walked herself back to her car, sobbing. But while the scars on her face have healed, the emotional ones are still painful. Even 10 years later she remains deeply traumatized over the event saying, “To this day I am scared of all dogs, teeny tiny to large [it] doesn’t matter.” Jennifer also said that the attack brought back some intense feelings from previous traumatic events and has struggled with mental health issues stemming from the attack, even though it was a decade ago. I think her story is so important because it highlights how deeply upsetting this can be even though these stories are often brushed off as “just a run in with a dog.” Also, like Jennifer, I too love dogs and probably would have done the same thing she did!

While I adore dogs in general – and I had the CUTEST one growing up (love you Tanner!) – I’m honestly not sure about pit bulls. There seem to be many people who absolutely adore them and yet the State of Maryland ruled them “inherently dangerous” and England – the place where they were first bred – has outlawed the breeding, ownership and sale of all pit bulls, period. But whatever you think about pits, unfortunately Jennifer’s story and that of the still-unnamed 63-year-old victim are becoming more common as irresponsible owners dump their unwanted pets or improperly restrain them. So what can you do to stay safe from an aggressive dog (no matter the breed) and still enjoy your outdoor jog? Wanting to find a balanced opinion I came across Roo Yori, a dog trainer who specializes in pit bull rehabilitation and the proud owner of the famous and beloved therapy pit bulls   Wallace and Hector . He’s well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of that particular breed but also teaches dog safety classes in general. Here’s his advice on how to deal with an unknown or aggressive dog.

5 Tips For Runners For Dealing With an Aggressive Dog

1. Keep things in perspective. “While there are unfortunate tragedies that are publicized in a way to drive fear,” Roo says, “the vast majority of runners go about their exercise routine without any incidents.” He adds, “Dangerous situations don’t occur because of the type of dog that is involved, it occurs due to irresponsible owners not doing their part to ensure their dog, regardless of breed, is a safe member of the community.”

2. Don’t run. Tough advice for a runner! But Roo explains that while your natural instinct may be to run away, you need to fight that. “Unless you know for sure you can get behind a barrier of some sort that will separate you from the dog, running away and/or screaming is most likely going to make the situation worse. Chances are, you’re not going to out run a dog, and the act of running away will probably activate the chase instinct present in all dogs.”

3. Become boring. “Most of the time, the best thing to do is become motionless and boring,” Roo advises. “Be a ‘post’ with your arms folded across your chest. If you’re boring and don’t engage the dog, the dog will most likely sniff your leg and move on. Wait until the dog is a good distance from you, and move quietly to a safe area.”

4. Be a rock. If the dog still attacks you and manages to knock you over, Roo says the best thing to do is “curl up like a rock” and cover your head, like the tornado drills you did in school. He reiterates that if you’re boring the dog is much more likely to simply leave you alone.

5. Take precautions. If you’re particularly concerned you can carry a canister of pepper spray or mace with you and Roo adds that there are citronella versions that also work well. But the best prevention, he says, is to know your route. “If you know of areas where people don’t care for their dogs properly and allow them to roam, then avoid those areas. If unsure, you could drive the route a few times first to see if you notice anything unsafe, canine related or otherwise. Be aware while you are running. If you notice an unknown dog ahead of you that you’re not comfortable with, the sooner you stop and keep your distance (not by running away), the better chance you’ll have at avoiding an encounter.”

Have any of you ever had an encounter with a dog while you were running? What did you do? Do you carry mace or something similar when you run outdoors? What do you think about pit bulls – is the fear warranted or do you think they get a bad rap?

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