Unleashed Dogs And Inconsiderate Owners
I guessed it wasn’t just me. Per the PCTA, “We’ve all been startled by an unleashed dog running at us while on trail.” I’ve been harassed by several unleashed dogs on trail and plenty of them around town. It’s happened so many times that I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these incidents. (I’ll get back to writing about the PCT in just a moment.)
I’ve been running regularly for more than 20 years, and in that time I’ve lived in several different cities. In one of those cities, my running routes were also popular with people walking their dogs, which is when I noticed a big increase in the number of incidents.
- 10 years, approximately 3 incidents per year.
- 10 years, approximately 1 incident per month.
I should emphasize that the vast majority of owners act responsibly by keeping their dog on a leash. Very rarely, a leashed dog will lunge at me as I run past, which isn’t an issue because I keep my distance. And some unleashed dogs are obviously well trained. When the owner sees a runner, they call their dog to them and command it to sit. These dogs aren’t a problem either.
All of the roughly 150 incidents I’m thinking of involved unleashed, badly behaved dogs. With very few exceptions, the owner was nearby. Without exception, they were unable control their pet. Every time, I stopped running as soon as the dog started moving in my direction.
Most of the incidents involved small dogs: angry, yappy little things that were mostly teeth and hackles. Bigger dogs can be aggressive too, but less frequently. Big or small, if a dog gives me trouble, it’s obvious they feel threatened rather than playful.
You may have been warned to avoid direct eye-contact with a dog you don’t know. In my opinion, if a dog has decided to pick a fight with you, an unwavering stare might be your only defense. I’ve found that it buys enough time for me to back away slowly. In fact, there were times when locking eyes with an aggressive dog was the only thing that kept it at bay. A stern “NO!” might make the dog hesitate for a moment, but that was the most it ever accomplished.
If the owner was present, the incident inevitably ended with them having to restrain their dog. I had to fend off the irate animal while the owner made their way over to me, and I was usually irritated by their lack of urgency. I expected more than a saunter. Not a full-on sprint, but perhaps a slow jog.
Twice, I received an apology from the owner. The other times, they had one of two reactions. About half of them would drag their dog away without saying anything. The other half were dismissive; cheerfully saying something like, “You’re fine. He doesn’t bite.”
One owner used those exact words after reattaching her dog’s leash. The dog was still furious and frothing at the mouth, lips curled back, teeth bared. Every few seconds, it stopped snarling just long enough to take a breath. The only reply I could think of was, “Really? Because he looks like he wants to bite.”
People who let their dog off its leash are happy to see their pet enjoying its freedom. I get it. However, the vast majority of those people haven’t trained their dog well enough for it to be let loose in public. Either they don’t know their dog’s behavior is unacceptable, or they don’t care.
If you happen to be harassed by an unleashed dog, the bad news is: you’re effectively on your own, even if the owner is nearby. The dog will ignore its owner, who won’t intervene quickly or be sympathetic when they arrive. The good news is: whatever the circumstances, there’s a good chance you’ll walk away unscathed. I’ve only ever had one really close call where I didn’t think I’d be walking away.
A close call
It was a windy night, and my guess is that somewhere, a gate had blown open. Three dogs had escaped: two Pit Bull Terriers, and a Beagle mix. I saw them before they saw me, and I came to a complete stop. They were romping along the sidewalk towards me, distracted by their play, and obviously very happy with their newfound freedom. Then they spotted me, and their behavior underwent a complete transformation. They were no longer three happy-go-lucky juvenile domestic dogs, but a pack of experienced hunters. I’m not sure if it was instinct or training, but it was extremely sinister.
As if on command, they spread out and began to approach from three different directions. Low to the ground, cautiously, steadily, they advanced. I moved to the curb, and turned my back to the road so that the dogs were to my right. There was 50 mph traffic just a few feet behind me. In front of me, there was a 10 foot wide sidewalk and beyond that, a 100 foot grass verge. The dogs had plenty of space to get past if they wanted to. They didn’t want to.
One of the dogs continued to circle around, making its final approach in front of me. One dog hung back for a few seconds, then approached from my right. The third dog slunk off the sidewalk in order to sneak up from behind. As the dog in front of me closed the gap to just a few feet, I bluffed. Like I was throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game, I took a step forward, stamped my foot, and pretended to hurl my water-bottle at the dog. It didn’t even flinch. I was out of options, and had just one thought. “Shit. This is gonna hurt.”
But then, a stroke of luck. Behind me, and somewhere to my right, I heard a car whose driver had slammed on the brakes. A second later, there was a loud bang and an equally loud yelp. As far as the two remaining dogs were concerned, the hunt was over. The intense, singular focus with which they’d targeted me just a moment ago was gone. All their attention switched to the dog that had been hit by a car, and I took the opportunity to escape.
There are risks
For an unleashed dog, the backcountry might be even more risky than town. I recently talked to someone at a trailhead who was waiting for a hiker. The hiker was carrying her injured dog from the trail after it had been severely stung while investigating a hornets’ nest.
It’s not just the wildlife – people are a potential threat. The PCTA warns that “Your dog could be harmed by people acting out of fear with boots, sticks, pepper-spray or other weapons, even if it’s not aggressive.”
The PCTA is right. I used to hike with someone who carried a gun when backpacking. One evening, as we were getting close to camp, we passed a tent that was about 50 feet from the trail. An aggressive dog approached us, and its owner tried in vain to call it back. With the dog too close for comfort, my friend put his hand on his gun. The owner’s calls immediately pitched-up slightly, and a note of panic entered his voice. The dog heard it too: it stopped in its tracks, turned its head towards its owner, then grudgingly returned to its campsite.
I don’t carry a gun, but I sometimes carry bear-spray. Once, a large Dobermann sprinted down the trail towards me, and it was lucky I wasn’t quicker on the draw. The dog shot past me, with its sights set on a fast-retreating squirrel. A few seconds later, the slightly worried-looking owners appeared. They assured me that the dog was “super friendly” before chasing after their wayward pooch. Super friendly or not, that dog almost got a face full of bear-spray.
Back to the PCT
The hike from Burney Falls to Interstate 5 was uneventful. The first day was overcast, but then the sky cleared without things heating up too much. There were a few heavily-logged areas, miles of green tunnel, and plenty of trail with unobstructed views. My perspective of Mount Shasta changed on a daily basis. I leapfrogged a five-person trail family several times, and met the vanguard of the SOBO hiker bubble.
This section’s other memorable moments.
- Lowlight – the pit toilet at Ash Camp, next to the McCloud River.
- Highlight – Girard Ridge. This dirt-road shortcut has good views, and it knocks almost 3.5 miles off the descent to Interstate 5.
When you reach Interstate 5, you have several options. You can take the bus or try to hitch a ride. Nearby destinations are Castella, Mount Shasta or Dunsmuir. Some people walk alongside the railroad tracks towards Dunsmuir. There’s a mile of track between Soda Creek Road and Financial Avenue, with an additional three mile road-walk into Dunsmuir.
Not long after midday on a Friday, I started walking along Financial Avenue. I’d read the Farout comments mentioning the aggressive Pitbull in the second house on the left, but I was confident I could handle it.
The house’s front door was open, and a Chihuahua was barking incessantly from the safety of the porch. What a relief! The commenters had seriously overstated the threat. That’s when the Pitbull/Bulldog mix barreled through the doorway. It charged past the Chihuahua, leapt off the porch, and covered the distance to me in about three seconds. I barely had enough time to raise my trekking pole and point it directly at the dog. It was a big animal, but it managed to stop in time, with its nose about eight inches from the tip of the pole. It was the rare canine combination of very large and very angry. Through bared teeth, it snarled and barked without apparently needing to take a breath. With its front paws stretched out towards me, and its chest low to the ground, it was itching for the right opportunity to spring forward.
I locked eyes with that creature like my life depended on it. Then I slowly continued in the direction I needed to go, backing away very carefully. With my trekking pole pointed at the dog like a giant magic wand, occasionally I glanced over my shoulder to see where I was going. Each time, the dog would dart forward, trying to advance around the trekking pole. Reestablishing eye-contact restored the stalemate. Between barks, I could hear muffled, half-hearted shouts coming from inside the house. Presumably the dog’s owner, and predictably, no help whatsoever.
You’re a wizard, Barry
For the next 150 feet, I progressed along Financial Avenue like some sort of moonwalking wizard trying to banish a raging monster from the kingdom. At the boundary of the dog’s territory, it started to drop back, but I continued my backwards progress until I was sure I was safe. My adrenaline level didn’t return to normal for a mile or two. Once again, an owner had failed to consider the consequences of their dog’s behavior. And once again, I’d been lucky.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.