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I Was Bitten By a Dog While Running: A Christmas Story

Dog bite bandageMy 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.

Dog Bite Blood

Lots of blood!

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…”).

Dog Bite Running

Gash on inner thigh, and you can just make out the other on the back of the thigh. Both all the way through the skin into the fat.

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.

Dog Bite Stitches

Two stitches in each bite wound, and a rainbow of colors on my leg.

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!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. I find it’s quite rare to meet a dog who is leashed, even on trails with clear signs requiring owners to do so. I’ve only had a few nervous moments so far, but the irresponsibility is frustrating.

    Heal up!

    • Edith Savard says:

      In my case, I got bitten by a small dog while running a couple of years ago. But the dog was on leash! He must have been surprised since I arrived from behind. But in my case, the owners were so disrespectfull that they went away in a hurry, leaving me in shock on the sidewalk of Route 1. I did not even have time to get mad at them. I was on vacation in Maine so I ended up asking the clerk at Cumberland for help. I was always careful with dogs before that day but now, like you said, I announce my arrival and hope it will never happen again. Hopefully!

  2. That is horrible Pete. I have been chased by dogs running, on my scooter, and on my bike. I run on some dirt trails that connect to an asphalt bike path, and folks walk them primarily on leashes, but there is always a bozo with a loose dog, and I do everything possible to get away, including turning around or heading off into the dirt. People always think they know their dogs, but they always act surprised when their dogs come after you. Since they know their dog doesn’t like people, they are really most of the blame. Hope you snap back soon, and thank goodness you have no sign of infection. Hope 2016 is your year!

  3. Rodger Kram says:

    well, that bites! :-)

  4. I was attacked by a dog last week while running as well. Didn’t get bit though. Two dogs just loose in the neighborhood apparently. Hadn’t seen them before or since. I was lucky enough to see them coming and realize that one of them was not in a nice to meet you frame of mind. Backed away slowly, shouting get back whenever it got too close. After about half a block it finally lost interest. Hope you heal up OK.

  5. I hate to say this, but you’re very lucky. I had a German Shepherd and even though he was a pussy cat, his jaws were incredibly powerful. He used to take bit rawhide bones and instead of gnawing on them he’d grab them in the middle and bite them in two. That’s a nasty bite, but they can do a lot worse. Hope you heal soon.

    An yes, it is a good idea to let a dog know you are coming. It is quite possible this was a fear bite since he quickly released.

  6. #NotAllDogs

  7. Sorry to hear about the bite, Peter.

    I’ve had a few incidents with dogs lately. About a year ago a loose dog attacked my on-leash elderly dog as we walked him through the neighborhood. I grabbed the dog by the collar to get him off of my dog. The dog pulled and thrashed so much that I sustained soft tissue damage in my hand and forearm that took months of physical therapy to heal. A few months later I was cornered by a loose Rottweiler that seemed very unpleased with my presence on a farm road. I was stuck there with the dog matching my step for step for half an hour until someone could pick me up. I had a German Shepard run up at me in the dark while running just a few days ago. It caught me off guard and I just stopped and yelled “NO!” at it. It stopped charging but continued barking at me from only a few feet away. The owner came out of the house and apologized, saying that he didn’t expect anyone to be outside in the bad weather, so he thought it would be safe to let his dog out unattended (we live in Chicago!).

    I usually run (at least in town) with pepper spray. Like you, I don’t know how effective it would be. Maybe it won’t completely stop an attack, but might stop one that’s already in progress.

  8. Grant Miller says:

    Thanks for writing this. It will remind me to be more watchful and to be a better dog owner. I like to let my people loving beagle/terrier run loose in the evenings because, like me, “he’s born to run”. I probably need to stop doing that, especially since he does not love other dogs. About two years ago I was approaching (head-on, no less!) a walker and his small breed dog on a city park trail behind my house. With absolutely no warning the little stinker jumped up and caught my upper thigh with his sharp little teeth. Fortunately, he mainly just tore a hole in my sweat pants and I think gave me a small scratch. The owner seemed as surprised as I. I just kept running out of disgust. I like dogs, but I was sort of hoping the little booger ripped out a tooth. When I was a bike rider dogs seemed to be more of a problem. I suppose because I would often be out of the city limits where they can run loose and they are often larger (and faster!). Hope you heal well and the dogs “heel” well, too.

  9. Pete,

    You are letting the owners off easy. New Hampshire law is very clear: if a dog injures you, the owners are responsible for all costs, so long as you were not trespassing on their property or involved in some other criminal act. It doesn’t matter if the dog was on- or off- leash, whether you provoked the dog, or anything else. (Note that this is not necessarily the same in other states.)

    There’s no need for you to worry about insurance companies or anything else here. Send the owners the bill, perhaps with a nice pointer to section 466:19 of the New Hampshire law.

    link to gencourt.state.nh.us

  10. I was out for a run on Christmas morning with my son. I warned him that I am always concerned about loose dogs on Christmas morning, because people kick them out of the house while they are opening presents. We have a tradition of a mostly trails run Xmas morning. Hope you heal well..

  11. Ugh, how frustrating. I would have had the same initial thoughts and tried to turn my iPhone armband into a tourniquet probably. I can understand a dog being taken off guard (congrats on the subtle footfalls by the way! good form!) but that is a major bite. My heart goes out to people who try to provide good lives to dogs that are overreactive and “manageably” aggressive, but yeah – good intentions don’t make up for irresponsibility. If this was a first bite, and the owners were as concerned as you suggest, hopefully they’ll never let this happen again.

  12. Glad you’re ok. I had a run in with a dog and it’s owners last winter on a trail run in the state forest near my house. Unleased and running while they mtn biked along with it. Dog nipped me enough to tear my new xmas present tights. I gave them my info and they sent a check for the cost of a new pair. I’m super careful around dogs in the woods, owners or no!

  13. I’m glad to hear it didn’t end worse. Hopefully you’ll recover quickly and get back to running.

    I had a run-in with a German Shepard on a trail run earlier this year. Coming around a blind kink in the trail I came across a trail maintenance worker’s dog (unleashed) and while he was distracted using his loud tree trimmer, the dog ran towards me. I stopped running (thinking this would calm the “chase” instinct) but he continued to charge. He kept jumping up and me and snapping and put a nice big hole in the shirt I was wearing. Thankfully he didn’t bite me!

    Since then I carry some pepper spray in addition to my trail knife.

  14. I’m so sorry to hear of your experience. I’ve been bitten 3 times by dogs during my nearly 26 years and 85,000+ miles of running. You were fortunate to end up with owners who accepted the responsibility. In two instances, the owners blamed me for provoking their dogs. In one case, the owner was a police officer and the police refused to file a report, claiming it was my word against his and his word to the department was that he didn’t see his dog do it and his dog would never do such a thing.

    You did everything right in this case and I think your takeaways are right on. I would stress with #6, if a leash law is in place, follow it. The county parks and trails where I used to live and still do work have a strict leash law that is infrequently followed. Irresponsible owners have run law-abiding citizens concerned for their own safety out of some areas, which is completely wrong. All dogs have a chase instinct. This can’t be trained out as my mother, who has owned a kennel and used to raise and show registered collies, constantly reminds people.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery and no more trouble on that or any other trails you frequent.

  15. Yikes, sorry for the horrible Christmas experience. And thanks for sharing it. I’m always wary of dogs and whenever I see them unleashed on a trail, I stop and let my presence known to the owners. Usually the dogs are friendly and would just sniff around. Hope you’re healing well.

  16. Heal up fast, Pete!
    I know you will hang on to that good running mojo and you’ll keep it rolling into January. Determination is your middle name.
    Lynn

    • Thanks Lynn! Chomping at the bit to get back out there, hopefully on Wednesday if I get the stitches out. Signed up for a Ragnar in May (21.5 miles for me), and maybe a half marathon in March.

  17. You should’ve known better: dogs hate Hokas!

    Kidding aside, glad you weren’t hurt badly. During my runs I often cross through small villages were dogs -shepherd dogs, guard dogs, pets- wander the streets completely unsupervised. Some are friendly, some can be quite aggressive. My rule is, as soon as I approach a dog I don’t know, I’ll slow to a walk and won’t resume running util I’ve left them behind by 8-10 meters, being careful to look behind me a few times to make sure the dog isn’t chasing me.

    If an unknown dog shows interest and approaches me, I’ll stop and offer the palm of my hand, holding it lower than his head (to avoid seeming theatening), for him to smell. Most dogs accept this gesture and let me pet them.

    I’m more concerned about running into a wild boar, though! There’re plenty of them around here.

    Happy 2016 from Spain. Keep up the good work.

    • Grant Miller says:

      I always offer my closed fist for a dog to smell. Supposedly it will be harder for the dog, especially a smaller breed, to hurt your hand if he does decide to bite.

  18. Wow, sorry to hear about that. Haven’t had any incidents in a long time, but I’ve been amazed in the past about how clueless dog owners often are.

    Good thing about the rabies vaccination. I had to get rabies shots after a run-in with a bat several years ago. Not fun.

  19. Grant Miller says:

    Well, well…here’s an unfortunate update to my previous post. Last Tuesday I was very near the end of a 5.5 mile loop trail at a state park near my town. I saw a photographer/hiker about 200 yards up the trail and he never seemed to notice me approaching (while running) until I was within about five yards. AND that’s when I first saw his unleashed half-grown black lab running at me. Labs are normally pretty well behaved dogs and I wasn’t sure what his intentions were. Unfortunately his first reaction was to bite-at the ‘intruder’. Then the guy’s other unleashed dog came at me, but did not attempt to bite. No damage done and the guy apologized. But, again, it’s frustrating. I guess I should be thankful I came out pretty much unscathed. I also reminded myself that I was SUPPOSED to be watching for dogs more diligently and making some noise so even ‘potential’ dog owners would know I was approaching.

  20. Pete

    I do not agree with the classification of “puppy nip kind of thing”. Small dogs still have sharp teeth.

    I am writing this just to remind you that Paula Radcliff was bitten by a small dog in the ankle and she had to stay away from running for a while to recover.

    When I encounter a dog/owner(leashed or not) I always warn them I will pass and they always are amazed and say the dogs will not do anything. I tell them they are armed and I am not.

    Thanks
    (Diogenes from Sao Paulo,,Brazil)

  21. Oh wow,thats really bad! My day to day run is around a lake and I have lots of over excited dogs trying to jump up at me but I’ve never been bitten. My main issue is the geese and swans who like to try and peck me sometimes as I’m passing :) I’m glad the owners took responsibility
    Julie
    http://www.mobilemassagecardiff.co.uk

  22. Great to hear you are fine. I have just started reading your blogs and found it very interesting. Looking forward to visit again for more running tips and of course :) running shoes.

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