My most unexpected Christmas gift this year was a 3 hour trip to the emergency room. Fortunately Santa Claus was not the giver of this cruel present. Rather, it was received from a large German Shepherd that I encountered while out on a run on Christmas Day.
I’ve been running on the trails behind my house for around 8 years. It’s a short trail network along the Merrimack River, and it’s a favorite spot for dog walkers and families. I’ve grown accustomed to dogs being off-leash over the years, and I often run with my own dog (a black lab named Jack) on these trails. Until last week, I’ve never had an issue with a dog causing trouble. Most are content to give a sniff and go on their way. Some will chase Jack and play for a bit. None have ever be threatening to me or Jack.
On Christmas Day 2015 I decided to head out for a 4 mile run to help burn off the endless supply of cookies that enters my home around this time every year. I headed out along my usual route, piecing together stretches of road and some short trails. There is one trail loop, only about 1/3 of a mile long, that I frequently add on to pad distance. It was on this loop that my incident occurred.
I was running along the trail and noticed a couple walking in front of me with their dog. an older looking German Shepherd. The dog was off-leash, but I didn’t think anything of it. I’ve passed by people walking dogs off-leash there countless times, and have never had a problem.
My usual practice is to try and make some noise as I approach walkers. This is more for their safety than mine – I often startle people when I pass them from behind and they don’t hear me coming. I scuffed the leaves on the ground, cleared my throat loudly a few times, but they didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps I should have been more deliberate in letting them know I was there.
I passed the couple on the left, and then passed by their dog. The next few moments are a bit hazy in my memory, probably because I was shocked by what happened. The dog apparently bolted at me from behind (chase instinct I suppose), and latched its jaws around my right thigh, just above the knee. I think the owners shouted at the dog, and it came back to them. Thankfully the damage was limited to a single bite.
I looked down at my leg and saw blood streaming down my calf and into my shoe. Oddly, my first thought was to shut off my Garmin (2 miles exactly!). My second thought was “Damn, how am I going to finish my run?” Only then did it register that blood was really gushing down my leg, I had a one-inch-long hole in the skin above my inner knee, and another gash on the back of my thigh.
I somewhat regret my next reaction, which was to start cursing the owners profusely and loudly. I’m not generally a confrontational person, but I was pissed, and in the heat of the moment my temper got the better of me. I yelled at them for having the dog off-leash given that it was willing to attack like that. They apologized profusely and the woman gave me some tissues to soak up the blood. For some reason the guy put his hand on my cut and pulled it away, covered in blood. I still feel bad about my reaction, though I suppose in the moment it was understandable.
After calming down a bit, I asked if they had a phone so I could call my wife to pick me up. After she arrived, they gave me their contact information and told me they would meet me at the ER. Given that I could see fat poking out through the wounds, I suspected that stitches were going to be needed. I wasn’t really sure what else to do – call the police? Call my insurance company? We decided to just head over to the ER and figure it out there.
The hospital ER was more crowded than I anticipated it would be on Christmas. Several people were there for knife cuts (carving injuries?), and one woman came in with a laceration from a broken wine glass. My wife called the police, and they told us that we definitely needed to file a report. They sent an officer over, and she listened to my story and collected my info. She then contacted the dog owners, who showed up shortly afterward.
The officer confirmed that the dog was up to date on its rabies shot, a fact that the nurse would later tell me was the best thing that happened for me that day (apparently rabies shots are not at all fun…). She told us that the owners would be fined, and that the fines would increase if another incident with the same dog occurred in the future (not sure how many offenses are allowed in my town…). I feel it’s important to report incidents like this both to help deter recurrences, and to protect others who might be attacked by a dangerous dog (I kept thinking “What if I don’t call the cops and this dog winds up biting a kid next? A kid whose face is at the height of my thigh…”).
After the officer left, the dog owners reported that they had called their insurance company and filed a claim to cover my medical bills. They were very cooperative, and were obviously upset about what had happened. For that I give them credit.
The thing that really bothered me was that in the course of our conversation they told me their dog “doesn’t like people,” and that they had chosen that trail because they never see any people on it. Never mind that I run that trail all the time, and often see families walking on it, but the idea that a dog that doesn’t like people is allowed to walk off-leash in a public area really angers me. If you know that your dog has issues with people, it should never be off-leash.
I waited about 2 hours to be seen, and once I was taken in things moved along pretty quickly. The doc rinsed the wounds out with saline (made quite a mess!), and I wound up with two stitches in each gash (see photo below). She told me that I couldn’t run again until I got the stitches removed, which would be about 10 days (this was probably the worst part about the whole experience!). I also received a prescription for an antibiotic to ward off any infections that might be caused by bacteria in the dog’s mouth.
I’m now 4 days out from the bite, and although the skin on my leg is turing all kinds of lovely colors, I seem to have avoided infection so far, and the wounds are starting to heal. I’m in the process of trying to sort out insurance coverage so I don’t have to pay the medical bills, and I’ll update if anything odd happens with that.
It seems like the typical pattern that whenever I start to get my running mojo flowing, something happens to derail it. I was on target for my highest mileage week in quite awhile when this happened, so the unexpected break came at an inopportune time. On the plus side the damage could have been much worse, so there’s that, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to run again sometime next week.
Based on my experience, if I have any pieces of advice for runners who frequently encounter dogs on their runs, they would be:
1. If you are approaching a dog from behind, be deliberate and make the owners (and the dog I suppose) aware that you are coming. My guess is that they would have leashed the dog had they known I was there. I suppose it’s also possible that the dog would not have charged if it had noticed me prior to passing by.
2. Everything happened so fast that I don’t think having mace or another animal deterrent would have done much good. I suppose if I had been approaching from the front and a growling dog was charging at me I might have been able to react, but not sure on that.
3. Do report any biting incident to the police, no matter how minor (unless maybe it’s a puppy nip kind of thing). Keep in mind that the next bite could be more serious, and the victim could be a child. Dog attacks need to be documented, and owners should be held responsible. For example, we have a vicious dog on our street – it bit a neighbor and the dog is now confined to the house. I think it took a threat from the owner’s insurance company that their insurance would be revoked to actually result in a change in behavior. That being said, I’m still nervous whenever I pass the house and the dog is leaping at the inside of their screen door.
4. Get the owners to pay your medical bills. You should not have to pay for damage done by an uncontrolled pet. Get the owner’s name, address, phone number if an incident happens. Suggest that they call their insurance company, and call your own insurance as well. Involve the police. As I said above, I’m still working through this with my insurance company, but I’m hopeful that the bills will all be covered.
5. Don’t let the actions of one bad dog (or bad owners) ruin your opinion of the animals. I’m a dog lover, and will continue to run on those trails, even though off-leash dogs are normal there. I will probably be more careful, particularly when approaching from behind, but I know that the vast majority of dogs that I see are harmless and would rather run along with me than chew on my leg.
6. Be a responsible dog owner. I’m not really opposed to allowing a well-trained, obedient dog off-leash if an area allows it, but it’s a matter of knowing your animal. If you know that your dog dislikes people, has a history of being aggressive towards people or other dogs, or does not respond to verbal commands, it should never be off leash in a public place. A poorly trained or aggressive dog can do some serious damage, and that damage could result in a very expensive series of medical bills that you may be responsible for (as well as hefty fines).
If you have any stories of your own to share, feel free to leave a comment. In particular, any helpful advice on how to deal with a dog encounter would be much appreciated!