Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When cyclists attack: Dog vs Man

"If you don't know how to do it, I'll show you how to walk the dawg."

The other morning, the LGBB and I took Jazz for a walk to her school. It took us around an hour. There is a bike track that goes all the way there. It's a really lovely gently downhill walk all the way, and there are many spots where you could almost imagine you're walking on a path through the bush, not through the back of suburbia.

On this deserted path, I decided to allow Jazz some free roaming time. She is harmless. I know this. Despite knowing this, I have the eagle eye of an experienced dog owner. Some, granted, would say that an "experienced dog owner" would not have let the dog off its lead on council land where it is common knowledge that dogs should be walked on lead only. Weighing up the risks compared with the short bit of off-lead time I was giving her, I made the measured decision to keep a watchful eye on my dog and let her run in the grass verge to the side of the track. Many groups and individuals passed us over a ten minute period, mostly on bike but a few on foot. They passed us without fuss or fret. Jazz gave them barely a glance, if that, and continued her foraging in the lush grass - she loves to scratch her back and snout in grass for some reason, I've heard other Kelpie owners say their dogs love to do this too, perhaps it's a trait of the breed.

Lolly and I were making good time. Steve was going to meet us at the school with the car to give us a lift back, a wisely pre-arranged plan we made before we left home, sans phone.

Along came a man of quite decent, solid build. He looked to be roughly in his forties and in very good shape. He was riding a bike and coming towards us. I checked where Jazz was as he headed our way; she was sniffing the base of a gum tree at the edge of the path. I saw by the way the rider's face was set determinedly that he was in some sort of deep concentration and deduced he would not be an individual who would share a nod, a smile or any grunt in recognition of sharing the path and early morning with us. That's cool. I've been in the zone before while exercising. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't acknowledge a passer-by.

When he rode past us, I was only mildly alarmed that he came quite close to the LGBB - thankfully, she kept her gait steady and didn't wobble into his path or he would have clipped her. Perhaps he felt we should get off the path completely, for we had already moved out of his way over to our side of the shared walkway. It was a fleeting glance, but I saw him jerk his head sharply in the direction of Jazz as he rounded the tree under which she was gaily sniffing. In a moment, he was gone - mere seconds and he had passed us by - and we continued on.

Not more than two minutes passed and, just as Lolly was launching into some new endless sentence without a break about some desperately important bit of information she needed to impart in one continuous breath, I heard someone shout something from behind her down the track a ways. It took me a few moments to register the words in my brain... something about "dog on the fucking lead"...

The man on the bike was making his way back, obviously reaching some turning point in his ride and coming back the way he came. Lolly was oblivious and thought I had stopped ahead of her to turn back and wait for her to catch up - it's hard to concentrate on your single minutes-long sentence and keep a good walking pace, didn't you know? - but I was mostly watching the situation with my dog and this fast-approaching bike rider who by now I realised had the shits up about Jazz being off lead.

"She's fine," I assured him as he cycled past Lolly making his way past me next. The dog hadn't even lifted her head and was at this point a few metres from the path to my right, still under my control and posing absolutely no obstacle or danger to anyone, least of all the big burly man.

"Get FUCKED," he shrieked like a madman. "Should be on a lead." He rapidly rode into the distance past me. The whole exchange took less than five seconds.

The moment got the better of me and I was instantly riled, as if something had leapt off the rider and onto me. I was baited, hook, line and sinker. I took it. Without hesitating (or thinking), I fired back, "Calm down, sir." I have absolutely no idea why I added "sir" the way I did. Perhaps I thought it'd soften it. I immediately wanted to gulp my words back in. It was wrong to shout anything after him. I had visions of him dismounting and coming back and punching me in the face. I felt like I had been hit in the stomach as it was. He was just so angry!

The LGBB was concerned. She caught up to me, asking questions about "the man" and wanting to know - word for word - what he said and what I had called after him. I tried to wave it off but she persisted. I had to feed my words back to her, regurgitating them as if she was trying to make me be more accountable for my part in the exchange. Mostly, I was mortified that having the dog off lead, despite her perfect behaviour and temperament, had been so gruffly pointed out to me.

"What did he say to you?" Lolly probed.

"He said Jazz should be on her lead... and he's right," I replied truthfully.

"But why was he mad? And what did you say to him?" she asked, a most concerned look on her face. She's at an age where such juicy social exchanges are referenced and filed for use in her next dollhouse or Barbie game - there's always an antagonist these days if I listen in long enough.

"He was telling me Jazz should be walking next to us because maybe he thought she would trip him over," I said. It was the first logical thing that came into my head, probably not far from the truth either. I'd like to think he was an upstanding citizen who was concerned for the safety of others.... something tells me that wasn't the reason for his policing attitude, but still. I'll never know. "And I asked him to calm down because he seemed angry."

I felt a fool, spelling it out to her. I shouldn't have yelled after him. It was idiotic and made me feel worse because I was contributing to the exchange and buying in to whatever he was already carrying. That kind of venom isn't spat out at a stranger without it having brewed to that point long before the situation even arises. He was just seizing the opportunity to let some steam out of his inner pressure cooker. I get that.

"But why was he so angry about Jazz?"  See? Even a five year-old knows Jazz is nothing to be concerned about. That dog is the definition of "nice".

"Because..." getting a little frustrated now, just drop it already, sheeezus! "...some people are just so angry in their hearts that they yell at other people, even sometimes people they don't even know. It's a shame, isn't it?"

It was the closest to a full explanation as I wanted to get that day. Lol seemed satisfied after that. Her face relaxed back to neutral and she changed the subject to something completely unrelated. I love the way kids do that! I wish more adults could do it. But that's an entirely different blog post......

Look, I knew it was essentially wrong of me to have Jazz off her lead. But I'd love to take a poll of dog owners and ask them if they haven't given their dog a few minutes off the lead here and there over the life of the dog. Come on. I'd like to think I am a sensible, responsible person (some would say I am often painfully too responsible and morally upright!)  - I know my dog and I know she would no sooner rush at someone than take down a wildebeast.

Other dogs are a different matter: as soon as another dog comes along, mostly for the safety of my own dog I will restrain her if she is at that point having a sniff off the lead. It's just not worth the potential for a dog-barney in the road. A brief exchange with the other dog owner will determine whether we let them have a run together. It seems the unwritten rule of engagement out there and most, if not all, dog owners I have ever met have been very reasonable and more than keen to let Fido have a run and tumble with my dog too - we know the joy these social creatures get from connecting with their own kind. In fact, it's a big part of the joy of owning a dog.

It's a can of worms, I know, asking where you stand on the issue of dogs off lead. I myself would not like to be anywhere in a shared public place with a dog off its lead - heck, some people seem to have a hard time stopping/controlling their dog even when they are on lead! If I see kids - on foot or on bikes - she goes back on straight away. If I see other dogs in the distance, same thing - back on straight away. If there is nowhere for her to roam or get off the path and it's being shared with walkers and cyclists, she also doesn't get off the lead. If there is anything unpredictable (a windy day, poor visibility, anything that just doesn't feel right), she stays by my side and doesn't go off lead. You can see that there isn't much opportunity for time where she is let off! An rightfully so. Dogs should come last in the chain in public spaces, always. BUT... if it is mostly deserted and there's plenty of space and a decent stretch of path where I can see people coming in either direction from a fair distance away, then yes. I let her off.

What are your habits walking your own dog? What are your thoughts? And ummm... what's better or worse: having a harmless dog off its lead or shouting expletives in a threatening manner in front of a small child in an essentially deserted area? I have to tell you (now I'm safe at home) it was one of those hair-raising moments where I saw in a flash what can happen - and how easily these road rage (bike path rage?) bashing stories end up on the news.

Update: Wed. 25/1, 11am - I am closing comments on this post now. If you feel moved to add something that hasn't already been discussed, please feel free to visit my Facebook page instead. 
I would like to point out that the second last paragraph in this post clearly describes the conditions in which I give my dog a rare chance to walk off-lead - in a safe and controlled environment, not in parks full of people, at shopping centres (heaven forbid!) or anywhere where there are children. 
I would also remind, respectfully, that I am not representative of (or advocating for) irresponsible and inconsiderate owners who seem not to respect shared public places with their out of control dogs. They give all dog owners (and dogs!) an unfair bad name. 
Thank you to all who contributed to the discussion.

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