Trail Etiquette

Pet peeve: people who take unreliable, often aggressive dogs onto trails, off leash. What makes them think it's OK out in the wilderness, when they wouldn't allow them off leash in their own neighborhood? Is it because they expect only to encounter strangers, people who can't track them down to complain, or sue?

Unfortunately, in the incident that occurred yesterday, it was my own friend who brought the unreliable dog. Worse, against my wishes to introduce my dog to his at the trail head in a controlled way, he instead started up the trail early, knowing I would catch him.

I had Maia with me; Meadow was home on forced rest. Maia and my friend's other dog had already met and got along fine. This second dog - Peter - I knew had gotten into fights, based on my friend's reports, which is why I was cautious and wanted a controlled meeting. It took me and Maia nearly four miles to catch my friend and his dogs, but the entire way Maia smelled them and wanted to catch up. She likes my friend. Hell, she likes all men! I had an internal struggle the entire four miles: should I have her on leash when they meet? That can make her a target, and I didn't want to make more of a situation that might in reality be nothing. Both dogs were on neutral territory, right?

I should listen to my gut. I had a bad feeling from the start, and had been dreading this day.

Maia ran ahead to say hello to my friend as soon as she spotted him. She was just out of my sight through some trees, but I could hear the snarling as soon as she got to him. Shit. I ran as fast as I could, and when I arrived, my friend and all three dogs were on a small bridge over the river. Maia had turned sideways to Peter, immobile - as if looking at the pretty river below - hoping to not antagonize him further. As soon as she saw me, she cautiously, with tail down and submissive, walked to me and sat. She was clearly startled, not understanding why she'd been attacked, having done nothing wrong. My friend grabbed Peter, although he didn't seem too concerned about the incident. Maia started sneezing - at least 7 times in a row. I asked my friend if Peter bit her; he denied it, but I couldn't think of any other reason for the sneezing unless she hit her nose on the bridge railing in an effort to get away from Peter. My friend was saying "They need to work it out." No, they don't! What my friend didn't see and was clueless to was Peter's attitude: he was showing me and Maia all of his teeth, lips curled back as far as they can go, tongue snaking in and out as he snarled menacingly at us. My friend, who is hard of hearing under the best of circumstances, didn't hear it over the roar of the river. He didn't seem to think Peter needed any sort of correction of discipline. Peter was actually gaining courage as my friend held him close.

Why do people insist dogs should "work it out?" Would you ask a child who is repeatedly bullied by a classmate to keep interacting with him, to work it out, despite likely physical harm? How would you feel if, every time (or even 50% of the time) you went hiking, you encountered a bully who threatened you with a knife - would you want to keep hiking that trail, knowing the encounters were inevitable? Would you become fearful, or would you get angry, perhaps find your own weapon, feeling that the best defense is a good offense? Why should we expect our dogs to react any differently than we would? Some do become fearful. Others - like Peter - become aggressive, and each new incident increases that response, because it works, it makes the other dogs (and maybe people) leave them alone, because there are no negative consequences to the behavior.

Maia and I passed Peter and my friend, carefully, on the bridge, and we went on up the trail, leaving them behind at their slower pace.

But I knew at some point Maia and I would have to turn around to get back to our car, this being an out-and-back route. Much of the trail is along steep cliffs, maybe two feet wide with rocks and loose scree underfoot. Not a place for another incident. We ran another couple of miles up trail, found a wide spot, and waited about 10 minutes for my friend and his dogs to pass. When they reached our spot, my friend stopped; I told him Maia and I were turning back. He had Peter by his collar. Peter growled when Maia and I started to move toward the trail. Again, no correction from my friend. It's as if Peter is being rewarded for his orneriness.

On the way out, I met my friend's wife, who was hiking. She was worried about Peter's reaction to Maia, and wasn't surprised when I reported what had happened. She told me Peter had bitten an older German Shepherd they'd adopted in past weeks, puncturing the skin on his forehead. This was the second time Peter had attacked this new member of their family. And Peter's aggression had been happening for nearly two years, something I was unaware of. I was reminded that any red flag - in this case, my friend saying Peter had gotten into a fight with a neighbor's dog and been the underdog in the battle - should be heeded. There's always more to the story. Most dog owners are unwilling to admit their own dog can be aggressive and minimize it in their stories, or blame the other dog. I certainly know mine can be aggressive under certain circumstances - typical Malamutes, they don't start fights, but they're usually quite willing to finish them - which is why I'm doubly cautious about introductions. I was proud of Maia for turning her back on Peter on the bridge (in large part because she didn't have Meadow for backup - had Meadow been along, Peter would likely have had two Malamutes teaching him a lessen in manners). And as we made our way back to the car, we had a good encounter with another runner with two large dogs, both very friendly, and an OK encounter with a hiker with three dogs - two dachshunds and a border collie/mix who approached with a bark and growl, but returned to his human when called. The dachshunds were also barking. I didn't pay them much attention and their owner quickly scooped them up and held them as we passed by. Good reason, I later learned from my friend's wife: one of them bit two hikers on the trail.

I always have my girls under control - holding their collar, or quickly put on leash - whenever we encounter new people or dogs on trails. You just never know, and I don't like any negative encounters. If I see that the other dog is friendly, then I let them interact. But I never assume.

Please, people: if your dog is unreliable, if it growls or snarls at other dogs or people, DON'T let it off leash on the trails to terrorize the rest of us. Better yet, keep it home, because clearly it finds being out in the big world stressful. Don't make your problem our problem.