One thing you run into A LOT on a transcontinental run, especially if you run less trafficked backroads through small towns, is dogs.
And from the moment I started encountering dogs on my first 200 mile run, I’ve heard a lot of advice on how to deal with them, much of it ill-informed and impractical (I’ll get to that in a moment). The truth is, what works is whatever gets you past the dog, and that means understanding your situation and your choices as well as you can.
Things NOT to Do, And Why
Shooting the dog.
I get that you may feel you need to protect yourself from unknown threats. So carry if you want to, I don’t care. Some transconners do, some don’t.
But unless the animal is truly psychotic, rabid, or an unrelenting pack hunter, it’s probably somebody’s “baby.” Think about that for a second. Yeah, the dog barked at you and lunged when you didn’t back down. Maybe he bit you. You’ll live.
Apart from the fact that it’s cruel, just wait to see what happens when the owner arrives…with HIS gun. People are attached to their animals, and the last thing you want is some emotional stranger packing heat who’s mad at you for killing his precious Woofie.
Macing, bear spraying, or pepper-spraying the dog.
A fiercely territorial, aggressive dog is one thing. But spray the dog in the face with something that burns their eyes, and watch them risk their lives to return the pain on you tenfold. Chances are that dog Will. Not. Stop. Until. One. Of. You. Is. Dead.
Pressing on when the odds are against you.
Be especially watchful for loose or aggressive dogs when you pass isolated clusters of houses or trailers on an unincorporated rural mail route.
We’ve noticed when running through sketchy, run-down, or otherwise dodgy rural neighborhoods, the number of aggressive animals seemed higher than usual. Don’t play the odds. Get in the car, go back to your lodging or the last safe route marker, and RE-ROUTE. You don’t HAVE to go that way, and that’s the animals’ home.
Running like hell.
They will just chase you, they are MUCH faster (even the pregnant Dachshunds in Niederwald, TX!), and they WILL catch you.
Things TO Do, And Why
Scout your route before running it so you know where you’re likely to encounter loose animals. Wear a live GPS tracker and instruct your crew to expect you at a certain place and certain time. If you don’t show up on time, they should come find you. If you ARE delayed dealing with animals and nothing is wrong, once you’re past them, IF you have cell reception, step off the road and text your crew to let them know that there was a delay but you got safely past.
If you are running through an area that has the hallmarks of loose dogs, have the crew drive ahead to draw them out, spot them, or provide cover by driving between you and the animal (if the road is safe to do so).
Assess the situation.
A dog that’s 100% bent on consuming human flesh is going to come at you hell bent for leather. Keep an eye out, and if you see this, put some distance between you and the dog by crossing the road. Pick up a big stick if you have to and use it to put some distance between you and an aggressive dog. But to be honest, this is a very unusual situation.
In the 850 miles across Texas, I encountered truly scary dogs only once, who circled me in a small pack, growling and snarling, about 10 miles outside Texarkana. Thank goodness I was on US Hwy-82 and an approaching motorist honked his horn, waved me across the street, and put his vehicle between me and the dog.
Most of the time, though, dogs belong to somebody. Chances are they’re on or near their owner’s property, and at least in their minds, you shouldn’t be there. A short distance away from that property, they’re just watchful. And the farther they are from that property, the more likely it is that they’re just curious.
If the dog is territorial, acknowledge the territory.
You can usually tell this when a dog barks a few times and walks out near the road to check you out.
Usually, that means crossing the street. If you are unable to cross the street, this is the one situation where I recommend glancing at the road to make sure you’re not going to get hit, and getting as close to the road as you can. Don’t get hit by traffic! But the closer you are to the road, the less a dog will want to actually get in the road to go after you. Invariably, some will risk it. But remember, they live there–they’ve seen traffic and it’s scared the bejeesus out of them enough times to teach them something.
Raise your arms.
This can make you look larger and more unpredictable than you are. It especially helps if you are wearing bright clothing. Most of them will take a few steps back to make sure they’re out of range.
Wave your hat.
Similar in effect to raising your arms. The dog is probably unsure whether the hat is just a bluff or is some sort of weapon, but it serves as a warning to the dog.
Speak loudly and assertively.
Because most of the dogs you’ll encounter are probably pets, 9/10ths of them understand words like “STAY”, “NO!”, “GIT!” or “STAY BACK!” shouted at the top of your voice.
Summon as much command as you can. Domesticated dogs know when they’re being shouted at, they don’t like it, and they know it usually comes from the person they depend on for food. Even though that’s not you, it appears to pretty ingrained behavior. I found it to be marvelously effective when the dogs were mostly territorial.
Walk, don’t run.
Just in case you were thinking “don’t run like hell” didn’t extend to “don’t run.” Dogs seem naturally programmed to chase things. If you can get away with just walking past the yard without putting on a shouting and waving display, so much the better for you. The owner’s neighbors are less likely to think you’re crazy.
This has two advantages: first, it faces you toward the dog, so you know what is and isn’t coming. Second, because if you were walking / running facing traffic previously, when you cross the street you will have traffic at your back. One more good reason to turn around and face oncoming traffic.
If a dog is bent on asserting its territory, there are other things you can do besides walking backwards, waving your arms, and speaking assertively. Distractions can be anything:
- A bright flashlight, especially tac-torch styles that can be set to flash constantly on and off
- A noisemaker such as a storm whistle, air / marine horn, or stun gun (just used to make a crackling noise, not to attack the dog)
- A craft-store plastic daisy on the end of a collapsible chalkboard pointer
- A brightly-colored (blue or yellow, because these are colors dogs seem to see best) foldable mini-umbrella that you can open and close repeatedly as well as use to put some distance between you and the dog
The objective is to interrupt what they’re doing and make them stop and think before acting.
IF the dog is curious, wait to see how it behaves.
Dogs are trained to be aggressive. They learn it from people. They also learn to be curious, playful, and inquisitive. Be open to that.
It’s hard to tell at first whether a dog running at you is on the attack or just trying to catch up with you. I remember once just outside Duncanville AL encountering a muscular-looking pit bull who had been sitting quietly in a yard nearby and came running toward me as I went past. I had already slowed down to a walk to discourage it from chasing me. But there was something about how the dog didn’t bark and how it came bounding toward me as if to play catch. I moved toward the road, as far as I could, just in case. I had raised my hat and was about to shout “GIT!” when the dog reached my feet, rolled over, and awaited belly scritches. I named that dog Duncan…not sure what its real name was, but I’m pretty sure it was GOOD BOY. 🙂
There was another time just north of Nogales, AZ when I was approached by a German shepherd, which ran ahead of me, turned around, and kept backing up and rising up on its haunches. It was a hot day, so I took the cap off my water bottle and held it out so the dog could taste it. It drank heartily, and after that, it followed at my side for the better part of 3 miles before turning around and heading home. That dog I named Dogales (pronounced Doug-a-las).
I remember Bodie outside Mt. Vernon, TX, who followed me for hugs and scritches, and when I stopped for water, sat on my feet so I wouldn’t move. That was hard to get over, because right then and there, I mostly wanted to hug and scritch Bodie, but I was only 18 miles into the day.
And finally, on my 2019 run across Texas, I was just outside of Cookville, TX when I was approached by a large black labrador. It seemed insanely happy to see a person walking, and kept standing up for scritches and hugs. I thought it might belong to the man whose yard it was in, and since he was outside at the time, I asked. He said no, the dog was a stray and had been living for months near the edge of his yard along with a white dog of similar size. The white dog had been killed by a motorist a few weeks ago and he thought the dog was lonely. He had been leaving food out for it but really didn’t want another dog. Neither did I, but “Cookie” ran with me for 6 miles into Omaha, TX, which had a Dollar General, a donut shop, and a volunteer fire station, all of which I thought might be a great place to part company with her. Before leaving that evening, Leslie and I gave Cookie the remainder of our air-dried beef (a couple bags worth) and about 4 ounces of freeze dried chicken chunks, and fed her water from a spare Gatorade bottle. We returned the next day to the Dollar General and Cookie was waiting there.
I knew Cookie was a survivor, but it nearly broke my heart to leave her. If we had any room in the van, I’m sure she’d be our pet by now. That’s her in the picture that goes with this post.
A lot of owners baby-talk to their dogs. Early on, dogs learn to pair that sort of lyrical, high-pitched language with cuddles, food, and generally rewarding stuff. So if you’re not actually being threatened–in other words, if the dog appears just curious–try talking “friendly” to it. It can’t hurt. I’ve actually walked past yards where dogs barked once, ran to the edge of the yard, and stood there. I would often say, “WHO’S a GOOD puppy? YOU are! YES you are!”, and they would bound happily back to the front porch.
Carry doggy treats.
I remember one time near an oilfield business just east of Odessa, TX, during my first run across the state, when I came across a couple of dogs that had clearly been trained to guard or protect the property. They were both muscular and I would classify their behavior as assertive, while not aggressive. They would get as close to the edge of the property as possible, stand firmly, and stare at me as I walked past. It looked like they were waiting to see what I would do, and since I often don’t know what dogs are going to do either, I carry milk-bones in my running pack. I tossed a few to those dogs and they calmed down. After that, they mostly followed me for more milk-bones, until I was well clear of the property.
Be graceful when people apologize for their animals.
Most are just being doggies, and doing what doggies do. Keep in mind that if the owner thinks the dog did something bad, the dog may be punished. I usually like to say, “thanks for keeping an eye on him, but he’s just being a doggie. No big deal.”
A Final Note
Dogs can be dangerous. That’s not to be forgotten. But the behavior of all but the most feral or abused is also fairly predictable.
Don’t attack them. Don’t threaten them. But do be assertive. Start by treating them with respect and follow up by asserting that you, too, belong where you are and you don’t want to get into their business.
The rest depends on the dog itself, its journey through life, how it’s been treated, and its personality.
Meeting a curious or friendly dog out on the road can be one of the most rewarding things that happens to you out there. It can warm your heart and turn a bad day into a wonderful day. Some of my transconner friends have come home with new Forever Friends as a result. Keep yourself eyes open for genuine threats, but also try to keep your heart open.