Over the years and miles, I have seen hundreds of dogs out on the trail; the vast majority seem happy and friendly. Tails wagging, they usually come over to greet me and receive a quick scratch on the chest. Others just ignore me, perhaps worn out from the rugged terrain and looking forward to doing what they naturally do for about 12 hours a day: sleep.
The owners, too, are overwhelmingly friendly, usually asking about my hike or wishing me well on my journey. Most have their dogs on a leash as is appropriate and, for those whose dogs are easily excited, they stand to the side of the trail and let me pass without getting jumped on. These are all like-minded people and they prove that a little courtesy goes a long way.
Unfortunately, these aren't the dogs that people remember. At least, they're not the dogs that I remember. As an example, I was hiking down the trail one day recently, lost in thought but enjoying the day when all of a sudden, a German shepherd comes barreling toward me. Barking, baring teeth, hackles up... He lunged at me before I even knew what was happening. I crossed my trekking poles in front of me to hold him off while his owners eventually came after him. "Fluffy! (or Cupcake or Rover... I can't remember what they called the beast) No!" They were a young couple. By the gear they carried, they looked like they were just out on a day hike. The woman barely had the strength to pull the dog away by the collar while she muttered apologies. The guy just stood back, looking helpless and embarrassed. "What the hell!?" I exclaimed, "That is SO not okay." The woman hauled the dog off to the side and fumbled with a leash while the dog continued to jump and bark - clearly out of control. "You just can't have a dog like that off-leash out here!" I admit, my heart was racing and the adrenaline was flowing, having just been attacked by this dog and wanting an explanation. Finally the guy spoke up "All he did was bark at you." he said, sheepishly. I was blown away. How could this guy say anything except "I'm very sorry, sir. It won't ever happen again." "So someone has to actually get bit before you'll take this seriously? Asshole." I shook my head and remembered that you can't fix stupid. Nothing I said was going to get through to this idiot so I shouldn't waste my time with him. I hiked on. The woman at least, did say she was sorry when she was pulling the dog off me and she seemed to be clearly embarrassed by the whole episode, never once looking me in the eye.
It's a shame - GSD's are one of the easiest breeds to train. I should know, I owned two of them for years. They want to please. It takes very little time to teach them. This is the very reason I blame the couple and not the dog. If I try to make excuses for them, I could say well, maybe they just got the dog and haven't had time to train it yet. Or maybe it's not their dog - maybe they're just watching it for a friend. For all those reasons and more, they should have had it on a leash. Absolutely no good reason not to.
Unfortunately, situations like this are part of the reason why dogs will be forbidden on more parts of the trail. They are already not allowed in the Great Smoky Mountains and the White Mountain National Parks, mostly, I think, because they disturb the wildlife and leave poop everywhere. Signs saying "Dogs must be on a leash" just don't work. There were plenty of signs in the vicinity where I was attacked.
One of the most common questions I get asked about long distance hiking is "What's the most dangerous animal you encounter?" I think people ask this assuming I will answer with a story about a close encounter with a bear but the real answer is dogs. I've now had three or four close encounters and I know two other hikers whose thru-hikes were ended by dog bites. That officially makes them the most dangerous animal on the trail.
Agree or disagree, please leave a comment below.