“The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.” ~ Andy Rooney.
The San Francisco Bay Trail is an ambitious work in progress; a planned 500 mile long hiking and cycling path encompassing the entire San Francisco Bay, touching all nine San Francisco Bay Area counties and 47 cities. To date, 350 miles of the trail are complete. In nearby Pinole the Bay Trail takes flight as a bridge that rises up in a curving arc from a waterfront park. The bridge passes high over the Pinole wetlands and the Union Pacific railroad tracks providing a sweeping view of San Pablo Bay and the Marin County hills. With just the right sunset, San Pablo Bay is transformed into a colorful sheet of rainbow sherbet colors. The Pinole bridge and the Bay Trail are frequent courses when I go running with my dog Lexi.
On one recent Saturday, Lexi and I were just completing mile five, descending towards the end of the bridge into Waterfront Park. We approached a man walking in the same direction with his Golden Retriever. The man heard us coming from behind and pulled his companion a little closer allowing us ample space to pass. As Lexi and I passed and rounded the final bend dropping us into the Waterfront parking lot I saw a loose black lab mix just as he spotted Lexi and I.
As the dog barked and bolted toward us I slammed on the brakes, “Oh shit.”
The dog’s owner called the dog and the dog brushed the man off as if he were an annoying flea, then took a quick sniff at Lexi and rushed at the man and the Golden. I called out to the offending owner that there’s a reason for leash laws. The man with the Golden tried to shoo away the black dog who’d stopped him and his dog in their tracks.
“Go on get outta here. Hey,” he shouted at the owner, “call your dog.”
My run was on hold because to continue running would’ve just had the loose dog chasing after us. “Call in your dog.” I shouted.
The paunchy man with a wise guy grin called back, “Take it easy.” Here’s where he applied the usual inconsiderate dog owner bromide. It’s the one with multiple choice excuses. “Don’t worry he’s (fill in the blank); just playing / just a puppy / just saying hi / just a little excited / just being playful. My favorite though is, “He’s never bitten anyone before.” The options are almost endless but the one thing that they all have in common is they never include the words I – am – sorry.
Instead of apologizing for the doggy ruckus he caused he called me and the other man “a couple of drama queens.”
The other man was still trying to shed the black dog from his own, “You see what happens? Call your dog.”
“Take it easy drama queen.”
We’d now reached that point in which any chance for a calm discussion about dogs, leashes and leash laws was just so much dog poop. I asked the man if he was special. “You must be special. The laws don’t apply to you I guess.”
“Shut up old man.”
Old man? Did he just call me old man? Only one person calls me old man and that’s my wife – the old woman. Of course you know mister, this means war.
“I might be old but at least I’m not hiding a basketball under my shirt. Oh wait, there’s no courts at this park so that can’t be a basketball. You’re just fat.”
More words, a good many of them bad and beginning with the letter “F” were exchanged as I walked out of the park and he got in his car. Lexi and I started running again.
“Have a heart attack old man!” he called.
“Have another donut tubby!”
As we continued our run I reflected on the confrontation, one that plays out between dog owners every day the world over. I wasn’t proud of how I’d acted. I’d taken things too far. I told Lexi that not only did I lose my shit I could have lost our lives.
“Never know Lex, he might’ve taken out a gun and shot us.”
And while I wasn’t proud of the way I’d responded, this man had been the tipping point. I was over it with people and their unleashed dogs. That same morning, on our way out, going up the same bridge we’d encountered a woman running with her small unleashed dog. As we approached she called out to her dog in a saccharin tone, “Oh look, do you want to say ‘hi’? Say hi! Say hi!”
I didn’t want to say “hi,” if for no other reason, than I was running comfortably uphill (a rarity for this old man) and I don’t usually like to stop and have to do an uphill restart. But I was more or less captive as the little dog yipped around us.
“Say hi! Say hi!”
The woman, finally sensing my annoyance, called off her dog and we continued on our separate ways.
All of this was just a day after having an unleashed Husky growl at us as we passed by; again we had to stop running and look unobtrusive.
Let me be clear here, my real serious running days are behind me and so I’ve no problem stopping and engaging with people. I just don’t want to be forced to do it on somebody else’s terms. I often stop my run and talk to the young Japanese woman who walks Duke, an older yellow Lab. We talk for a few minutes while Lexi and Duke engage in the international canine language of butt sniffing. We’d met on the trail some months back when she stopped me and asked if I knew how much farther that particular stretch of trail went. She gushed over Lexi and gave her some dried salmon treats. On one occasion, when I’d claimed to be too old for these runs she said, “You’re not old.” She’s alright in my book.
There’s the two ladies, one who always wears a pair of blue sweatpants emblazoned with NAVY in gold letters up the pant leg, who always want to say “hi” to Lexi.
There’s an old saying that goes along the lines of, “I love dogs, it’s their owners I can’t stand.”
In an earlier post I’d carped briefly about thoughtless dog owners. It’s long been something of a pet peeve (no pun intended). Lexi is our family’s third Gordon Setter, the first being Phantom probably close to 25 years ago. I try mightily to be a responsible dog owner, particularly since Gordons are bigger dogs. As soon as the danger of parvovirus is past I expose them as puppies to people and other dogs and I continue to socialize them throughout their too short lives, When people thank me for letting them pet Lexi I thank them in return for giving Lexi another opportunity to interact. I put my dogs through training when they’re puppies, I clean up after them and I follow the rules.
Following the doggy rules is a big deal for me. That’s because it’s the people who don’t follow the rules that screw things up for everyone. It’s a fact that a few incidents with unleashed dogs can result in all dogs, leashed and unleashed, to being banned from a park, a beach or a trail.
None of that matters to those who don’t like the rules or just feel like they’re somehow privileged. The rules don’t apply to them because they claim that they have voice control over their dogs, as they beg, cajole and threaten their dogs who run wild in a park happily ignoring the shouts of their impotent masters. It never seems to dawn on them that their behavior is an inconvenience to others. And if someone doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want a canine intrusion into their space, well, there must be something wrong with those people. Who doesn’t like dogs?
Doggy rules are a big deal because I realize that there are people who are terrified of dogs. I well remember the time that a pair of dogs had me frozen in fear. There’s a beautiful shoreline park a few minutes drive from our little town of Hercules. The park, Point Pinole, is acres of open spaces, beaches and eucalyptus groves weaved together by a network of dirt trails. Some years ago I was doing a late afternoon run by myself. I’d gone about ten miles of the planned thirteen when I rounded a corner and locked eyes with two German Shepherd dogs about 100 meters away. There was no owner in sight.
Both of the dogs barked and charged at me and I stopped, closed my eyes, started the Lord’s Prayer and literally waited for the dogs to make a meal of me. As the dogs closed, I heard the owner yelling frantically at the dogs who, after a number of recalls finally stopped and trotted back. I wanted to confront the owner but she had the advantage of two large dogs so I kept my mouth shut. The experience shook me enough that I cut short my run and walked back to my car. On my way I met a park ranger who I stopped and reported the incident to.
As individuals in the dog owning society we too often assume that our own dogs are friendly, well adjusted hairy angels and it’s everybody else’s dog that’s a problem. My Lexi is for the most part a well behaved citizen and I love her dearly. Lexi is an attractive dog and as such people are constantly coming up to her, talking to her and petting her (too often without asking me first). She almost always looks up at her admirers with liquid, gentle, patient eyes.
But realizing that she’s a dog I never take any situation for granted and I try to be aware of what’s going on around us when we’re out in public. Big hats, a shopping cart or other large objects can arouse an otherwise calm dog. Unexpected noises can set off people so why should we expect different behavior from our dogs?
One afternoon I was sitting outside of a coffee joint talking to some people. We’d been chatting for a good hour and during that time people passed by and Lexi paid no mind. Suddenly a woman approached and Lexi barked and tried to lunge. The woman had made no overt move. For some reason, to Lexi, something wasn’t right with that woman. I apologized to the woman and took Lexi home.
As dog owners we need to be sensitive to others. I recall the little girl at a nearby outdoor table at a local restaurant. She looked at Lexi’s 60 pounds and saw less dog and more coiled rattlesnake. Lexi was dozing off in a little patch of late afternoon sun but that didn’t make her appear any less threatening to the child. The little girl needed to go to the restroom but that meant running the gauntlet that was Lexi. Sensing the situation I got Lexi into a sitting position close by my side so the little girl could squeeze through.
I realize that I reacted badly to the guy with the black dog but I also genuinely believe that a different approach would have landed us at the same place. We would have just gotten there by a more dignified route. I’ve come to the sad, cynical conclusion that even a calm dose of reason rarely changes minds and that’s especially true when the subject is your dog. Dogs are as touchy a subject as politics, religion and beans or no beans in genuine chili. To cooly appeal that an unleashed dog can be terrifying to some people probably wouldn’t have made the slightest impression on the man. We’re a society of people that refuses to empathize. It’s always somebody else’s problem. “Hey if you’re afraid of dogs don’t walk on the rec paths or hang out at the park.”
Thinking back on the confrontation I am ashamed of my behavior but there’s still one thing that strikes a nerve. Old man. Did he really call me an old man?