Marathon and Beyond

On the Road With Ellen McCurtin

by Ellen McCurtin

A Runner's Worst Friend.

© 2002 42K(+) Press, Inc.

I have read a lot about the dog-mauling case in San Francisco in which 33-year-old Diane Whipple was killed in the hallway outside her apartment by one of her neighbors’ dogs.

The first day that I read about it, I was stunned and compulsively read all that I could find, fervently hoping that there would be a conviction and that this case would not be swept under the rug. I was appalled by the savagery of this young woman’s senseless, excruciating death. I think it resonated with me because I felt such a keen sense of her vulnerability (she was about my age, height, and weight and also was an athlete) and her helplessness in the face of the attack. Bane, the dog that attacked, completely overpowered her. She never stood a chance. Although I can’t know this for sure, my strong feeling is that the dog’s owners knew their animal was a potential danger and did not take responsibility for it. (On March 21, 2002, a jury convicted the husband and wife, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who owned the dogs, of manslaughter and of second-degree murder as well as manslaughter, respectively.)

Shockingly, two days after the attack that killed Diane Whipple, national class ultrarunner Bonnie Busch was attacked by two Rottweilers while she was out for a 6:00 a.m. run in Davenport, Iowa.

Fortunately, a passerby came to her rescue, drove the dogs away from Busch with a shovel, and took her to the hospital. The dogs weighed 140 pounds and 110 pounds, respectively, and they dragged Busch for half a block before she was rescued.

The wounds required surgery, and after a night in the hospital, Busch spent two weeks on home IVs, another two on oral antibiotics, and months learning to do things like write or use her keys to open the door. The dogs severed her forearm muscle and caused serious nerve damage that limits her hand movement. After the attack, Busch received a call from the owner who was concerned about her health, but maintained the dogs were friendly. (Others later testified to this in court as well.) As the saying goes, if people tell you their dogs don’t bite, don’t necessarily believe them.

If anything positive could come of these horrible situations, I hope that somehow another person would be spared. I hope that it would heighten awareness among dog owners that the responsibility for the animal lay with them. While the cases involving Whipple and Busch were nightmares and most run-ins with even very aggressive dogs do not remotely rise to that level of severity, most runners have been terrorized or chased by an unleashed dog at one time or another. Generally, the dog is harmless and may just be mischievous or playful.

I don’t like this because I don’t want to get tripped up by a dog. I also don’t want a dog running loose in the road, vulnerable to passing cars. Sure, accidents do happen, but I believe most could be prevented.

Along these lines, a great invention from a runner’s perspective is the electronic pet containment system that allows a dog to roam its yard but stops it from leaving the property. The dog wears a battery-powered collar, and a cable buried along the perimeter of the property emits a slight shock or a high-frequency pitch that acts as a deterrent to crossing the boundary. These systems are so common around my area that when I see a dog standing in his yard, barking and working himself into a lather over a passing runner, I usually don’t think too much about it.

It is a rare case around here when the dog is not contained somehow. (There are problems with these gizmos, however. They aren’t fail-safe, and dogs can cross the barrier and then be afraid to go back. Also, if the battery in the collar dies, the dog will not get the usual warning and will be likely to leave its normal confines.)

Unfortunately, one of those rare cases happens to be about one and one-half miles from my house.

One nice summer morning I headed out on a nine-mile loop. As I turned a corner and started down the hill toward the golf course, I saw a Rottweiler snarling and running down his driveway toward me. I was startled but not worried yet. He didn’t stop, though, and I slowed down because I suddenly began to wonder whether he was controlled by an electronic fence.

He was not. Snarling, he bounded across the road and took my arm into his mouth. I froze, terrified-so terrified that I could manage only a pathetic whimper as I imagined my arm being ripped open. His owner came running down the driveway toward us, imploring me, “Don’t scream! Whatever you do, don’t scream.”

It was clear that he had little control over his dog, which terrified me. The dog ignored him until he got right up to him. He got the dog and apologized. I felt like I was going to faint and started to cry. I told him he had to keep his dog under control because I was going to keep coming by the house on my runs. (Since that day I have gone by maybe three times; I feel so stressed out when I approach it that I prefer to just avoid it.)

I did not report the incident to the police, although in hindsight I think I should have. I hoped that what I perceived to be a close call would bring it home for the owner that he needed to do something to prevent this from happening again. Part of the problem, I think, is that it never occurred to him that there are runners who go by and are vulnerable. I have often felt runners were invisible to a certain element of the population. Either that or they are merely a nuisance.

This first time, as I said, I did not report it, although there is no excuse for not having reported it (and the more time that passes, the more I can’t believe that I didn’t). I felt that my local police had not been very helpful in the past about other things and that it was pointless to call them. On the other hand, I had an entirely different experience with my local animal control officer, whom I found to be responsive and helpful when I needed some information on another subject.

Either way, I believe that we have a civic duty to create a paper trail for such incidents, even if you feel no immediate satisfaction from making the call. I did get back my courage to run past this house some weeks later and saw the dog in his driveway. As I passed, the dog began to come down the driveway toward me, although not nearly so aggressively as before. Someone was at the house working in the garden, and I yelled at them to get their *&*^*% dog.

Just then a mailman came by in his truck and immediately understood what was happening. He pulled up alongside me and said he would run interference for me until we were past the house. Was I ever glad to see him, especially since I felt he knew what it was like to be afraid. (In fact, in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service teamed up with the Humane Society of the United States to address the problem of dog bites. It is estimated that more than 2,000 mail carriers are bitten annually. National Dog Bite Prevention Week is held each year in May.)

Having then had a second incident with the same dog, and being more than annoyed that the owner had not learned anything from the previous incident, I did report him to animal control.

I don’t necessarily want to come down hard on specific breeds of dogs, although there is an obvious trend around here toward Rottweilers, pit bull-type dogs, and Dobermans. The combination of a monster SUV, a McMansion, and an elaborate security system with a name like the Sentinel (names used for titles of horror books don’t make me feel safe; they give me the creeps) makes me feel that we’re living in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, post-apocalyptic world with everyone barricaded at home or driving around in tanks and armored cars. Our modern world is certainly not pedestrian friendly.

In a search to understand this phenomenon better, I began to regularly read the local paper’s crime blotter to see what made everyone so afraid. DWIs came in first, with petty larceny and disturbing the peace in second and third. I punched our zip code into the Web site to check our crime index. According to the site, on a scale of one to five (one being the best), we got a score of one, meaning that our odds of being the victims of a violent crime were the lowest on the scale.

I’d like to say that gave me some sense of relief, but quality-of-life issues are also very important to me. I was distressed to hear recently on National Public Radio that since Diane Whipple’s death there has been an increase in the demand for Presa Canarios, the type of dog involved in the attack. That’s a rather disturbing response to her senseless death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in 2000 that summarized the breeds of dogs involved in fatal attacks on humans from 1979 through 1998. They looked at specific breeds as well as mixed breeds. On top of the list were Rottweilers, pit bulls, and crossbreeds involving them.

Again, I am reluctant to single out the breeds as the problem because I believe it has more to do with the owner’s rationale for buying a specific breed.

The Humane Society of the United States specifically discourages this type of breed prejudice, as shown by its opposition to DC Bill 14-44, which seeks to ban anyone in the District of Columbia from owning a pit bull or pit bull mixed breed, without considering the temperament or history of the individual animal. The CDC estimates that 344,000 people a year are admitted to emergency rooms with dog bite-associated injuries and another 466,000 are seen in other medical settings. The report states that insurance pays out more than $1 billion in homeowners’ liability claims as a result of dog bites. Active adults, including “joggers,” cyclists, and golfers, are among the most vulnerable to bites.

My parents were both fond of animals and had tolerant attitudes toward them, my mother especially. She worked at an animal shelter in Maine, and at times it seemed that we had a revolving door in our house because of how often she brought home the worst cases. We had dogs that had been abused and dogs that everyone had given up on and expected to die. We once had a beautiful shepherd-type dog that was, in fact, a wolf hybrid. State law did not allow wolf hybrids to be kept at the shelter because they were considered dangerous. Cheyenne seemed to be the exception and was actually bossed around and intimidated by our ancient, partially blind, bowlegged, arthritic, three-toothed Chihuahua (another shelter find that outlived everyone’s predictions by several years).

The lesson instilled in us was that animals were the responsibility of the guardian and the animals that came through our door were the victims of physical abuse at worst or neglect at best. The shelter where my mother helped out had a no-kill policy, but this does not mean that dogs were never euthanized. I remember one instance where a dog that the staff considered vicious and unadoptable was put down. When my mother was told, her response was “If I wanted to know, I would have asked.” It made her sad when this happened.

She knew and understood the reality of the circumstances, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. Her attitude made a big impression on me, and I tend to automatically hold the owner accountable. But the truth is that even a good owner can have a good dog that can go bad. Also, as a runner, which my mother was not, I have learned over time to be afraid, and so my perspective, which was shaped by her influence, has been altered somewhat by my own experiences.

What can a runner do to prevent a dog bite?

Precautions include colored pepper spray (the dye can help identify the animal later if necessary) and squirt guns filled with ammonia. There is also a product called the Ultrasonic Dog Chaser, a small hand-held battery-powered device that emits a sound undetectable to the human ear but that is apparently piercing to the dog’s. I have never carried any of these and so cannot personally vouch for their effectiveness, but more than one runner I know swears by the pepper spray.

I must admit my fear is that these deterrents may backfire and enrage the dog, serving to further provoke it. I also think that a dog in a frenzy may not be that susceptible to these deterrents. To illustrate my point, about three years ago, two pit bull-type dogs broke into a goat pen at a farm near my house. After killing all the animals, they continued to race furiously around the pen in what appeared to be a blood frenzy. Fearing for the safety of the other animals at the farm, as well as for himself, and lacking an alternative, the manager got a rifle. He told me later that when he shot the dogs it was eerie because they didn’t make a sound or slow down. It was as though they were impervious to pain. He had to shoot them several times to stop them. He then called the police, who traced the dogs’ tags to their owner, who lived nearby. The owner’s response was pathetic; he denied any knowledge of them.

Experts say that if you are confronted by an unfamiliar or aggressive dog, it is best not to run away from or scream at the dog. Also, do not look the dog in the eye, as the dog may perceive this as a challenge. A dog that perceives your behavior as a challenge or a threat is more likely to attack. You should be silent and remain as still as possible with your arms at your sides. If the dog loses interest, withdraw slowly and gradually so as not to revive its interest.

If you are knocked down, it is recommended that you curl up into a ball and try not to move or make a sound, no matter how terrified you are. If you are bitten, the Humane Society recommends that you immediately wash the wound with soap and warm water and contact your doctor for further advice. It also recommends calling your local animal control authority and giving as much information as possible about the attack and the dog involved.

When I was living in New York City and running in Central Park, I never had a serious problem with a dog. The main nuisance was being chased by dogs that wanted to play or getting tripped up by owners who had their dogs on leashes and allowed the dog to run across my path, creating a tripwire effect with the leash. This was annoying but not life-threatening. Dogs were leashed most of the time. This is not to say that runners in urban settings won’t be victims of dog attacks.

In fact, on December 27, 2001, a pack of stray dogs attacked two runners in separate incidents on the same morning in the Rockaway section of Brooklyn. Both runners were taken to the hospital, with one listed in very critical condition with bites on the face and arms. Just two days earlier, on Staten Island, a pack of dogs got into the zoo and killed two wallabies, four deer, and a peacock.

Still, I think the greater worry for runners is in more rural areas where people are not as careful about leashing or penning their animals. When I went to school in Lexington, Virginia, there was one route we fondly called “dog mountain” because there were so many houses with dogs tied outside. As you passed, they began to bark and howl in a canine cacophony. Toward the end of the loop was a house surrounded by a tall hedge. This was the home of “stealth dog,” as he was known to us. Stealth dog’s raison d’etre was lying in wait until you passed, whereupon he would come flying out from behind the hedge and bark fiendishly. Although he took me by surprise more than once, he never did more than bark. Usually I could spot him well in advance so that I was mentally prepared for his sudden appearance.

Once, however, I was running by myself in a rural area called Collierstown, farther outside of town. It seemed there was not a soul around until I rounded a corner and came face- to-face with a large, snarling Rottweiler standing right in the middle of the road blocking my way. I was not about to try to go past him, nor did I dare turn my back on him to retreat, so I stood there. Thankfully, he did not come any closer to me. Equally frustrating, he stood his ground and snarled. I stood still but began to holler for help. It was such a remote area that it might have been some time before anyone came by in a car, and even then I wouldn’t have considered getting into a stranger’s car much of an alternative.

Finally, after what was probably less than five minutes but seemed much longer, I heard a woman’s voice yelling down from the door of a trailer home at the top of the hill to retrieve the dog. “Rambo! Get up here! I said get up here!” Rambo, I thought. It figures. I continued on my way, drained and angry by the incident. Needless to say, I never ventured back to Collierstown by myself again, which was unfortunate since the running out there was otherwise pretty ideal. At least the woman didn’t say, “Don’t worry. He doesn’t bite.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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Last update: July 2002
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