There you are, enjoying your favorite singletrack at Mount Local Nature Preserve. The air is crisp, the skies are clear, and you’re picking your way around the trail’s rocks and roots like the nimble mountain goat you are. Life is good. Then, all of a sudden: dog!
The creature, unbound and apparently alone, has careened around a bend and is barreling toward you, eyes wild and tongue out. In a flash, it’s darting around your feet, and you’re performing a little jig to keep from stumbling. The Dance of the Unleashed Dog.
As you mince and prance, you try to process what’s happening. First, you’re stunned. (Scientists call this the WTF stage.) Then you’re annoyed, and then you think to yourself, Hold up—didn’t I see a sign at the trailhead saying that dogs should be on leashes?
Yeah, you probably did. Such signs are common. So are dog owners who ignore them.
For the record, let me stress that I am a dog person. My wife and I have a ten-year-old shepherd mix, a sweet but not-so-bright boy named Cooper, who we raised from a puppy. Cooper smells like Fritos, and I love him. I delight in meeting new dogs and, with their owners’ permission, rubbing their ears. (The dogs’ ears, not the owners’.) Back when I had a car, it had just one bumper sticker: a white oval with the word “WOOF.” In short, I am pro dog. Yes. All the way.
However! Like you, I am also a trail user. And like you, I am continually vexed by the presence of off-leash dogs. Letting your pooch race up and down and across shared trails, unfettered and unpredictable, isn’t just rude, it’s dangerous. Dog owners: please cut this out. Everyone else: the next time you’re in such a situation, I encourage you to speak up. But what do you say? And just as important, how do you say it?
Before we go there, let’s pause and try to understand why some dog owners flout these rules in the first place. I have two theories on this. One is that these people—even the ones who ordinarily, in other settings, would use a leash—feel it’s OK to let their dogs loose “in the woods” because, well... it’s the woods! No cars! Few people! All nature! It’s the last place their dog can really run free! Run, Max, run—taste freedom! (And besides, they’re quick to say, their dogs are “fine” and would “never hurt anybody.”)
The other theory is that they’re just assholes.
Realistically, you’ll encounter both types of dog owners in the wild. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking which type is which, just as you can’t tell by looking which dogs are “fine” and which might dive-bomb your front wheel or sink its teeth into your calf.
Caution and tact, then, are the order of the day. Say something, absolutely—but be smart about it. First, keep your distance from the dog’s human. You don’t want them or their dog to feel you’re a threat. Second, stay cool. A loud, hostile, or snarky tone will only make the owner defensive and unreceptive. So wait a beat before you say anything. Take a breath. And try to preface your remarks with something positive like, “That’s a beautiful dog.” In my experience, they usually are.
Third, try to focus not on the dog’s owner or even on yourself, but on others; for instance, instead of blurting out, “Put your dog on a leash!” try “It would really be safer for everyone, including your dog, if he were on a leash.” If the animal in question caused an accident or a near miss, mention this as well—again, in a matter-of-fact way: “My buddies and I ran around the corner there and almost fell over your dog.”
Fourth and finally, thank the dog owner for listening, and tell them to have a good day—like you mean it!—before moving on yourself.
Will this actually change anyone’s behavior? Maybe. Maybe not. But it almost certainly won’t make things worse, and you’ll have tried your best. Sometimes, that’s the best we can hope for. WOOF.