Hazards on the Trail

_DSC3921In the first article of this series we talked about the benefits of exercise both for ourselves as well as our dogs. Different dog breeds possess physical and behavioral characteristics that can make them better running partners than other breeds. Matching our intended activity with the capabilities of our individual dog is a first step in making running and hiking a safe activity for all.

Our second article turned attention to ensuring that our dog is healthy an how to prepare them for increased rigors and increased  risks of the outdoors. Starting any outdoor activity is best done gradually to allow their body to adapt much like we would in building a couch to 5K plan. Ensuring that our dog is up-to-date with necessary vaccinations, parasite prevention and has the proper identification should be provided before exposing them to the increased risks of being outdoors. For a link to that article with additional tips click here.

In the next several articles in the series “Caring for Your Active Dog” I plan to address many of the common hazards encountered out on the trail. But before we move to that subject, I want to make some observations about obeying the leash law. Many of these problems that we will talk about could be avoided if owners obeyed the leash law that is in place through out El Paso County. There’s no question that encounters  with wildlife, encounters with other dogs, encounters with runners, bicyclists, automobiles, injuries and loss of life for our precious dogs could be prevented or significantly reduced if our dogs were secured with a strong collar and 6’ – 8’ leather or nylon non-retractable lead. So let’s take a few moments and review what the leash law says and what the legal consequences of not obeying it are.

Simply put, the leash law states that unless you’re in a marked dog park or off-leash area (look for a sign at the trail head which states permission to be off-lead) it’s against city ordinance (6.6.06: Duty to restrain animals). While the law has not been enforced in past years, largely due to the lack of personnel and resources, recently,  law enforcement officers have stepped up bicycle patrol throughout our parks and trails. Mostly warnings have been issued, however Joe Stafford, director of the El Paso County Animal Law Enforcement state that the number of tickets issued has been increased.

The fine for the first offense is $50 per dog off lead, $50 per dog if not up to date on Rabies vaccination which has to be administered by a licensed veterinarian, and $50 per dog without a current license. For a second infraction, the penalty rises to $80 per dog, per infraction and a visit to municipal court to face stiffer penalties for a third offense. The maximum sentence at municipal court is $500 per charge and/or 90 days in jail plus court costs.

Stafford, who is a dog lover himself, believes that most people are responsible with their pets but it is the few irresponsible or uninformed that can pose big problems for the rest of us. From my vantage point as a practicing veterinarian, I can unequivocally state  that not only do injuries, accidents and altercations with wildlife or with other dogs occur more frequently in off-lead dogs but additionally food poisoning from finding and eating dead animals, fleas, ticks and parasites, etc. are at much higher incidence when a dog is off-lead and not under leash control. Combine that with cost and heartaches caused by dogs not on-lead and under control and you easily see the rationale of obeying the leash law.

I start with this mention because a lot of the following issues would simply not exist if dog owners were compliant with the leash law. That said, let’s now turn our attention to hazards to the health of our dog as well as ourselves out on the trail.

Hazards for your dog on the Trail: Other Dogs, Part 1

Depending on the survey you read, Colorado Springs and the Denver-Boulder areas are often listed among the best cities to visit or live for both runners as well as their canine companions. Many of these surveys cite amenities such as number of open space parks, trails, access to healthcare for both runners and their canine companions, percentage of dog owners per capita and dog friendly legislation. No doubt about it, all it takes is a visit to many of the running and hiking trails throughout our area to see an abundance of people with their dogs out enjoying all that our beautiful area offers. So it’s probably not all that surprising to hear that the number one hazard to health and safety for ourselves as well as our dogs is namely:  other dogs. Because of that, I started this series regarding hazards for our dogs (and ourselves) with a consideration of tips that ay help us avoid problems. Some of these tips are common sense but some may be new and it never hurts to refresh some of the basics.  It’s not only our dogs that may need training, it is also the “other end of the leash” that can benefit from a refresher in these points.

Tip No. 1: Respect that fact that all dogs, even “friendly ones” need personal space, just like us. It is unwise and really it’s dangerous to encroach upon that personal space unless given permission by the owner who should grant or refuse that permission. When you are out on the trail running or hiking with or without your dog, you may or may not have time to engage in this evaluation as situations arise quickly and unpredictably.  And that is why it’s important when approaching or being approached by another dog to play it safe by placing your dog on a shortened lead and giving a wide berth as you pass outside the reach of the approaching dogs leash. Sometimes that’s not possible so proceed carefully. Pull up if necessary to safely pass.

Tip No. 2: Know your dog and their behavioral limits.  If you own a dog that gets stressed or is reactive to other dogs or other people, take precautions by informing others of this fact. Some dogs are just plain aggressive by nature. Others react to situations unpredictably. Don’t assume that your dog will never bite under the right conditions. Further, realize that for some simply being approached by an unfamiliar dog can be read as threatening for both humans and our canine counterparts. If you have a reactive dog, for everyone’s peace of mind and safety, consider avoiding situations that could escalate to injury by choosing low population trails and parks in which to find exercise (and exercise can be very beneficial to these types of dogs).

Tip No. 3: Realize that leashes are not muzzles and even with muzzles dogs could be threatening or cause injury.

Tip No. 4: Educate yourself and your children about dogs, how to approach them and interact with them and what to watch out for. Do this before rather than after the fact. I recommend that all dogs receive training for their benefit as well as ours. The world’s most dangerous words are “I think he will be okay”.   Some of these body language signs are a tensed body, stiff tail, pulled back ears, pulling or lunging, or the opposite as in hiding and avoidance with tail down. Trying to force yourself upon these dogs could prove unwise.

Tip No. 5: The size of the dog you own can elicit different responses for some dogs.  For example big dogs may see small dogs as prey, whereas larger dogs may be seen as a threat or  met with a fear response.  Socialization early in life, keeping puppies with their mother through 8 weeks of age, positive experiences with other dogs beginning early in life, and doggie daycare can make a difference.  Further, realize that each individual dog inherits a behavioral predisposition or “bent” which interplays in how they respond to their environment and life in general. All dogs and owners benefit from on-going training classes, so don’t despair if you own a behaviorally challenging dog.  Owners put up with far too many behavioral issues, costing grief, time and effort, whereas a more concentrated time spent working on specific issues with the right trainer and veterinarian could make life more enjoyable for both their dog and themselves.  Some dogs benefit from medications obtained from the veterinarian that can in concert with training benefit many dogs.

Tip No. 6: If you’re out on the trail and you see other dog(s) , evaluate the situation, if possible. Are the dog’s on-lead, off-lead? What is the body language of the owner and dog telling you? As you approach it is probably wise to slow down a bit and evaluate these points. Running full speed by a dog or group of dogs may provoke an aggressive prey or herding instinct that could escalate. Walk or jog by with plenty of space between you and the dog. Shorten the lead you have on your dog or lock retractable leashes. Always keep you hand through the handle for better control of your dog. If you know of bothersome dogs along your running route, sometime carrying dog biscuits can at as a distraction. However, in dangerous situation with bothersome dogs it may be safer to just switch routes. Always report unleashed dogs running free for their safety as well as others. The best phone number to call is El Paso County Animal Control Dispatch @ 719-302-8798 as all calls of this nature are routed to this number.  Preprogram it into your phone.

Tip No. 7: If you are charged by an unfamiliar dog, stop running and try to read its body language as best you can. If your dog is small enough, pick them up. If not, most of the time the charging dog has more interest in your dog than you and if they meet, unpredictable things could happen. Raise you hand with palm up and try to give a command to the approaching dog to “stop” “sit” “stay”. If the dog does attack your dog, do your best at getting them apart but do not put your hands or legs in harms way as serious injury can occur. If the dog attacks you, try to feed them clothing like a jacket or a walking pole. You want something in the dog’s mouth to avoid a bite.

Tip No. 8: I advise carrying a deterrent spray such as Sabre Red Pepper Spray – Police Strength Runner With Hand Strap – to use in dangerous and extreme situations.  A less injurious deterrent that works in a variety of situations is an air horn. On my runs I carry a Falcon Super Sound 1.5 oz. air horn. Both can be found on Amazon. Just make sure that they are readily accessible to be used if needed. For those wishing a more potent form of defense, the ZAP Taster unit, also found on Amazon is effective.  This is the unit carried by all the Animal Law Enforcement officers in El Paso County.  When discharged the electrical sound is often enough to stop all but the most persistent dogs.

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