It was a beautiful sunny day at the end of February. I was happy to be outside hiking the Manzanita Canyon Trail with my dog. The snow was packed down enough in a narrow path to allow me to walk with my microspikes for traction. My dog trailed behind me on his leash.
As we were headed up the hill about 15 minutes into the hike, I heard some commotion behind me down near the stream. Seeing nothing, I continued to walk. I noticed my dog becoming agitated and I heard dogs barking. I turned to see two dogs - a tan pit bull and a black border collie-type dog charging up from behind. Before I could stop them, the two dogs had jumped on my dog, biting him and knocking me to the ground.
While attempting to stop the fight, I was bitten on my upper thigh by the pit bull. The dog then turned its attention back to my dog and had its mouth clamped on his spine. Knowing that pit bulls have very powerful mouths and can severely injure another dog, I kicked the pit bull off my dog. When the dog refused to leave, I sprayed it with Sentry Stop That, a behavior modification spray.
It was at this moment that the dog's owner appeared over the hill. "Did you spray my dog?" she asked in an outraged tone. I let her know that I had indeed sprayed her dog with my harmless positive pheromone spray and that the dog had bit me on the thigh.
When the pit returned to the owner, she reassured me that her dog appeared to be fine. Growing more outraged, I repeated that her dog had bit me - hard. To this, she replied, "She has never done that before. I'm sorry, I don't believe you."
She continued up the trail. I pulled my dog off into the woods to let her pass - stunned by her reaction.
Loose dog tales from Taos
Judging from the tales I heard when I told my story, I am not alone in my experience. People shared some hair-raising stories about being bitten when visiting a friend's house, on the trails, on their neighborhood roads while walking and riding a bike. At least one friend spent the day in the hospital as a result. Several had even been bitten by their own dog - one when releasing it from a trap and another when she was scolding her kids - apparently the dog didn't approve.
This is not the first time I have written about dog issues. Last year, a woman contacted me saying that she no longer hiked the trails near Taos due to all the scary dog situations she had encountered. I wrote a story covering the relevant laws and common courtesy. I've hiked in and around Taos for 30 years and although I've had many close encounters, this is the first time I've been bitten while on the trail.
The issue of dogs off leash continues to be a huge hot button for our community. It is perhaps at its core a discussion about the rights of individuals to do as they please with their dog versus the rights of other people to have a safe and peaceful experience on the trails and their neighborhood roads. Some owners find it hard to believe that their dogs, which might be gentle at home, can change behavior in the outside world.
The attack aftermath
As I returned down the trail that day, I got madder and madder at being bitten and the response of the dog owner. When I got to the trailhead, I loaded my dog up and checked him carefully for any signs of bites. Thankfully, he was fine.
I took down the woman's license plate number and raced down to the Arroyo Seco post office, where I knew I had phone reception.
Because I had previously been told that dog incidents which happen in the Carson National Forest are under their jurisdiction, I called to report what happened. I was transferred to the voicemail for the Carson law enforcement officer, where I left a message.
In the meantime, I called Taos Pediatrics and Primary Care and spoke to the staff there. They consulted my health care practitoner, Koryn Michaud, family nurse practitioner. The staff asked about the dog's vaccinations, which I had no information on and my own. It had been perhaps 10 years since my last tetanus vaccination, so they scheduled me for a shot later that day. I showed Michaud the photo I had taken of the five puncture wounds in my thigh and she advised that I keep doing as I had done: ensuring the wounds were clean and treating the punctures with a topical antibiotic ointment. A prescription for antibiotics is not usually given unless the bite is on the hands, feet or face, she said.
I stopped by the Carson supervisor's office on the way home from the doctor's office to see if there was more that I needed to do to file a report, to which the answer was no. It was the next day that I got a call back from the Carson law enforcement officer who let me know that dog bites are in the jurisdiction of Taos County animal control.
The pause and outcome
At this point, I paused. I knew that if I filed a report with animal control that a citation would be issued and that the woman would need to go to court. I also knew that she could lose her dog as a result.
I consulted with animal activist Pennie Wardlow of Four Corners Animal League to explore some options. The following day, I spoke with Rita Cardenas, one of the animal control officers with the Taos County Sheriff's Department. She confirmed that if she issued a citation, the woman would have to go to court. She offered to make contact with the woman to speak to her informally first, which I agreed would be the best route.
Cardenas ran the Colorado license plate number from the car. Because it was from out of state, the search came back only with a name and a county in Colorado. With this information and a little sleuthing, the contact information for the woman was located. I emailed the dog owner and Cardenas followed up with a phone call and left a message; she also went by the woman's house.
Within a few days, Cardenas called to let me know she had spoken with the owner of the dogs. Cardenas explained the applicable laws and the dog owner agreed to keep her dogs on leash, which is what I had requested as an outcome. I decided not to pursue a formal complaint that might result in a court date and the loss of her dog.
Dog bite scale
I consulted several dog trainers to get their advice about what to do if an off-leash dog approaches you in an aggressive manner. (See boxes for their advice.)
Animal trainer Jane Gerard told me that she uses Dr. Ian Dunbar's dog bite scale from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers to judge the severity of a dog bite, usually in response to questions from a lawyer, when the dog bite is being pursued in court.
According to the Dunbar scale, there are six levels of dog bites from Level 1 - obnoxious or aggressive behavior, but no skin contact by teeth - all the way to Level 6 - the victim is dead. From a picture of my bite, she evaluated it at a Level 4 - "one to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog's canine teeth; may also have deep bruising from around the wound, indicating the dog held on and bore down."
The area of the bite that initially was five puncture wounds gradually turned into a bruise in the shape of a dog mouth and then spread across my thigh. After more than a week, the bruising began to subside, turning from an ugly purple color to a lighter yellow hue. After two weeks, the puncture wounds and bruise have finally begun to heal.
I was out walking the next day after the dog bite incident with my dog. Even though I felt a little more apprehensive than usual about the approach of other dogs, I continued forward, allowing more room than usual between me and other dogs.
After consulting with our local dog experts, I've refined a technique of stopping charging dogs that will work for me, should the situation arise again. I plan to use my hiking pole like a sword or jousting stick - gesturing toward the on-coming dogs and tapping them with the pole to interrupt their charge. I have my Stop That spray at the ready and am now more willing to use it.
I offer a plea from the many people whom I spoke to about the dog conflicts in our forests and on our roads - please keep your dog on a leash or under total voice control. Respect the rights of others to peaceful enjoyment of the forest and river lands. Let's work together to make sure we don't lose the privilege of being able to walk with our dogs in the wilderness.
And if there is a dog conflict, be sure to make sure that everyone involved is all right before proceeding up the trail.
Dogs bite statistics
4.7 million dog bites per year in the United States
800,000 bites require medical care
One out of every 69 people will be bitten by a dog each year
Dogs that bite most often
- Pit bull
- German shepherd
- Australian shepherd
Source: Canine Journal/Center for Disease Control
Town of Taos and Taos County
• Dogs off their own property in Taos County must be on a leash and have current rabies vaccinations.
• If dog bite happens anywhere in Taos County, call dispatch and ask for the Sheriff's Animal Control officer (575) 758-3361. The officer will explain the next steps which might include filing a report.
• If a report is filed, a citation will be issued and the person receiving the citation will go to court and a judge will decide the outcome.
Carson National Forest
• All dogs must be on a leash in a developed recreation area, such as a campground, picnic area or trailhead.
• Outside of developed recreation areas, especially around popular sites, the public is urged to have their dogs on a leash, although it is not required, according to Denise Ottaviano, public affairs officer. This recommendation helps dog owners maintain control of their pet and avoid a person or dog from being attacked. It is also a measure to prevent dogs from attacking or harassing wildlife.
• Our number one priority is to keep our visitors safe while recreating in the forest and keeping your pet on a leash will help avoid unnecessary confrontations. If you would like to report a dog in the forest harassing wildlife, please call the New Mexico Game and Fish department (888) 248-6866.
Bureau of Land Management
In developed areas, which include campgrounds, trailheads and trails, dogs must be on a leash or under direct control. "We request that people keep their dogs on a leash to avoid conflicts between people and other dogs and please pick up after your dog," said John Baily, manager for the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.
Jane Gerard of Jane Trains
I do not encourage "meet and "greet" in training or casual situations between dogs and people who do not know each other. There is far too much risk of either dog not liking each other or the play getting out of hand and someone getting hurt, including humans. Many dog owners are hurt trying to separate dogs during a fight.
If a dog is off leash and charging you and your dog, I recommend that you stand in front of your dog and yell "Stop," "Go home" or "Back," anything that causes the dog to hesitate. As soon as you see that hesitation, you must continue speaking in a strong voice and keep it up until the dog backs down. It is important you do not move but keep still until the dog starts to move away then you can move away.
Some of my clients carry a spray, but I think the most effective deterrent is the air horn. The drawback is your dog will be scared too by the sound. It is a risk worth taking though so that no one has to go to the hospital. Dog bites are serious and can cause considerable harm. If an owner has any doubts about their dog's sociability off leash, then keep the dog on leash or go out hiking on trails that are not popular or close to town.
A less serious situation is when a loose dog starts to follow you. I carry a cheap kibble (dog food) that I scatter widely, as I walk a brisk pace in the opposite direction of the approaching dog. If the dog is merely curious and not charging, he or she will sniff the ground to eat the kibble - this will give you enough time to walk briskly away, especially if your dog is somewhat reactive.
Tad Schmidt, Elevation K9
The first thing to do is focus on what is in your control, which is your energy and your dog's energy. The least in-danger group is the balanced group, the one that is not too scared or running away but also not too dominant, not moving forward. Other dogs and humans respect that.
Make sure you and your dog are calm and in sync, that your dog is listening to you. Work on reliable recall, so that you have control of your half of the equation.
After that it is about strategy and tools - I put myself between my dog and the oncoming dog. You can use a squirt bottle or a walking stick. If you feel vulnerable, you can get tasers, mace or bear spray.
Create a bubble around you. You can use a hiking pole in a "jousting motion," one good well-timed poke with the pole is going to get the attention of the dog. If there is more than one dog, look for the leader; the lead dog is the first one you encounter. If you shut down the pack leader, then the other dogs will fall into line.
Delinda VanneBrightyn of Dogology, president of Taos Search and Rescue and head of canine unit
Be prepared and thoughtful when walking. Stay alert and keep your dog under control. If you are diligent with your dog, you show respect and protect yourself from liability.
I don't recommend dropping the leash of your own dog, if you are charged by aggressive dogs. It does work sometimes, but if it doesn't, you've lost all control of your dog.
I carry a walking stick and use it or a backpack to put between me and the dog - keeping my dog behind me. I make my voice low - like a bear growl and say, "Get back" or "Get away."
I also carry Stop That spray. It makes a noise that startles dogs and has positive pheromones and is completely safe to use. Bear or pepper spray is another possibility - you just have to ensure it doesn't come back into your face. I also look around for rocks or sticks and have no problem using them. If the dogs get into a fight, you might be able to separate them by kicking the ribs or throwing water on them.
Be aware of coyotes, too. I know of several instances in which small dogs were grabbed by a coyote.
Make sure to educate and empower yourself to be prepared and protect yourself and your dog - that way you can turn a bad situation into a nonevent. We are lucky that we are able to take our dogs on public lands here. That is not the case everywhere. We live in a remarkable place - let's keep it that way.
Top five worst thing dog owners do on the trail
• Allow dogs to chase wildlife
• Let dogs off leash, without having total voice recall
• Permit dogs to get so far ahead or behind that the owner cannot monitor the dog's behavior
• Blaming the person with the dog on leash for the conflict with the off-leash dog
• Saying their dog is friendly, even as it growls, barks and charges
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