There’s a network of beautiful trails winding their way around the town where I live. They are well maintained, either paved or covered with a fresh layer of woodchips every two weeks. Large signs at the start and finish indicate that “hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders are welcome, but no motorized vehicles are allowed and dogs must be kept on leashes.”
You would think the last rule doesn’t exist for the number of dogs running loose. Every hike I take involves multiple unpleasant encounters with barking dogs that come bounding out of nowhere, destroying any traces of peaceful meditation that I might have been enjoying.
Too often barking is the least of my concerns. There is plenty of snarling, growling, and lunging, at which point my Mama Bear instinct kicks in. I scoop up my children, waiting for the owner to appear. They’re always far behind, yelling at their dogs to come back (they never listen), emerging around the corner with smiles, apologies, and the same phrase I’ve heard a hundred times:
“Don’t worry! He’s friendly. She won’t bite. He’s just playing.”
Really? Because the fact that my dog-loving children are practically in tears, my heart is racing, and we’re literally stranded in the middle of the trail because a growling animal with sharp teeth is nipping at my hiking boots is not my definition of “friendly.”
At this point I should clarify that I don’t have anything against dogs. My relationship to dogs is like that of women who don’t want children, when they meet a child: friendly, pleasant neutrality with no desire to touch them. Oh, and an added state of perpetual alert. My issue, rather, is with dog-owners who choose to believe that the bylaws do not apply to them.
I could believe what every dog-owner tells me and assume that all dogs running face-level at my kids intend no harm. In most cases, that’s probably true. But consider the alternate scenario, in which a dog suddenly decides not to be friendly, for whatever reason. My kid could – and many kids tragically do – pay the price with his face, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I’d be an irresponsible and foolish parent to trust every strange dog on the trail.
So I fight back. No longer do I smile, nod, and walk on by. Instead, I say, “Please put that dog on a leash. It’s the law,” at which point the owners turn nasty, angry, and defensive. You’d think I’d suggested something obscene. I’ve had people swear at me in front my kids.
In addition to safety threats, I resent the way in which dogs consistently ruin the forest’s peaceful atmosphere. They tear up the trails, drop their loads everywhere, frighten the songbirds, eat the frogs dozing in the ponds, scare away the wildlife, and shatter all sense of quiet. I escape the din of town life for a quiet hike, only to have to put up with barking dogs everywhere I turn.
I grew up in a forest full of black bears, moose, and wolves. They are spectacular, wild creatures. We have stared at each other in wonder and shock before taking off in opposite directions. I respect and love those wild animals, and have never felt afraid knowing they’re around me. It’s ridiculous that dogs – people’s personal pets – threaten my children’s and my safety far more than these indigenous forest animals.
My kids should be safe to roam free in their own town, but they’re not. Until dog owners stop believing that their dog is special and somehow exempt from the rules, I will continue to go out with extreme caution, armed with a big stick, a pocket knife, and the bylaw officer’s number on my cellphone.