What's Your Beef? What Does Friendly Even Mean?
It happened again the other day.
I was a few miles into a leisurely afternoon run when I heard a man shouting, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
There are few words less reassuring to a runner.
A moment later, the dog was upon me. At least the man was right in this case. His dog was friendly, a young black Lab ready to play. It was friendly enough to jump up and land its paws on my arm, then on my stomach. Friendly enough to think obstructing my path no matter how many times I jagged was a game we were both playing. Friendly enough to run three blocks with me while his owner trailed farther and farther behind us calling half-heartedly. Friendly enough to follow me around a corner. Friendly enough to follow me across traffic. Here I stopped. As much as I wanted to teach the owner a lesson, I didn’t want the dog to die. So I corralled the Lab to the sidewalk, and together we waited for the owner to arrive.
What did he say when he got there? He said, “He’s got a chase instinct.”
What did I say? I said, “Huh.”
When it comes to dogs, friendly beats unfriendly, that’s for sure. I’ve seen unfriendly. Every runner has. The ones that bark and growl and nip and sometimes bite. The ones that make you think about carrying bear spray on your neighborhood run. The ones that scare or hurt your children.
Earlier that same day, I had been taking a walk with my three-year-old son when he turned to me and said, “Daddy, that dog was nice. It didn’t bite me.”
If he’s afraid of dogs, I’d say it’s a reasonable fear after learning how to walk in Bozeman. During the past two years, he’s been knocked down, licked against his will and his loud objection, growled at, and barked at. And in each case, without exception, there has been a smiling owner trailing long behind the dog talking stupidly about how friendly the dog is.
Of course, my beef isn’t with the dogs, it’s with the owners and their oblivious grins and their moronic shouts of, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
Do you know what’s better than a friendly dog? A dog on a leash.
Because I’d like for my son not to have to say things to me like a nice dog is one who hasn’t bit him. I’d like for him not to be afraid of what your “friendly” dog is going to do next.
It’s true he’s never been bit, but he was on my back last summer when I was bit. Popular trail, lots of hikers, kids everywhere, and a dog comes from behind and sinks its teeth into my calf. Of course, late upon the scene was the owner of the “friendly” dog. She felt bad. She assured me the dog had its shots. She had very sympathetic eyes. She offered me a hug.
Needless to say, I did not want sympathy, much less a hug. I wanted her to be responsible for her dog.
I don’t care if you think your dog is nice. I don’t care that you love it like a child or whatever. I care that your dog not bite me and that it not growl at my son or knock him to the ground. I care that you abide by leash laws. I care that you start being as concerned with the people who live in this community as you are with your pet.
If your dog is growling at toddlers or chasing and sometimes biting runners and hikers and you don’t see this as a problem, you aren’t harmlessly self-unaware, you’re a public nuisance. And even if your dog really is friendly, the person it’s jumping on often doesn’t know that. How could they when every owner calls his or her dog “friendly?” How are we supposed to know anymore who knows what the word “friendly” means? I’m sure if I ran into Cujo on the trail one day, there would be a hearty Bozemanite somewhere in the distance shouting “Friendly!”
I get that you want your dog to be off-leash. A runner gets that, if anyone does. Just go to a damn dog park. That’s what they’re for.
Everyone who runs trails in Montana knows there’s a chance of being mauled by a bear. But that risk is nothing like the one we take every time we lace up our shoes and head out to the suburbs.
Scott F. Parker lives and runs in Bozeman. He is the author of The Joy of Running qua Running.