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Once Bitten, Twice Shy: More off-leash dogs means more dog encounters on the trails 

I look down at the dog that's just bitten me with disbelief.

click to enlarge outdoors_biking-dogs.jpg

It's a beautiful, unseasonably warm Saturday in Bend. I have a paid baby sitter entertaining my two minis so I can ride as long as I want. Although it's gusty, I've opted for a trail ride, and feel smart as I imagine my husband and his pals riding their road bikes on the open, windswept roads east of Bend.

I ride C.O.D., which is reportedly in good shape compared to some of the other trails in Phil's, and as I ride under the rock outcroppings I think of mountain lions. For some reason that trail, more than others, makes me aware of my appeal as a tasty snack for a big kitty.

I push the thought from my mind, as I always do, and had a great ride up to Storm King. Coming back down, I clear some tricky sections and, feeling pretty darn sassy, decide to add a loop and extend my saddle time. I'm cruising on fast, tacky single track when a couple of animals jump from the brush onto the trail in front of me.

I'm relieved to hear tags jingling, and realize they're just dogs - not mountain lions. As a frequent trail user, I'm fairly desensitized to off-leash dogs, and most of the time ignore them. The majority of them seem to be friendly and curious, if not particularly well trained, as I often have to brake and dismount to avoid running over a happy, panting dog running right into my front wheel.

I don't see a person, but figure the dogs will run back to their owner, and notice a third dog running up to join the others. I can tell they've turned around to run next to me when I feel a piercing pain in my left leg. I look down at the dog that's just bitten me with disbelief.

I yell for the owner, and see her running toward us from a distance. When she comes up, she knows which dog of the three bit me without me saying so, and is clearly distressed. I'm dropping F-bombs and unzip my leg warmer to see a puncture in my leg. Great. I know enough to assume I'll need a tetanus shot, and say so. Meanwhile, I don't ask for her information. I think she'll volunteer it. But she doesn't. She only offers that the dog has had its shots. I'm confused, and leave.

My response isn't unusual, based on both expert and anecdotal verification. "You were just bitten," says the deputy who ultimately takes my report, when I admit my gaffe. His tone suggests I'd expected too much of myself, and I can't wait to tell my husband, who is furious with me for not getting the owner's information. A friend who's an orthopedic surgeon - and a practical, cool customer - was bitten last year while riding in Phil's. She assures me she did the same and bolted without exchanging information after she was bitten.

Ironically, I remember having checked my Pearl Izumi leg warmers for damage, thinking I'd need to ask to have them replaced. But I didn't think to ask for the same consideration for my physical self. (Typical biker: the first thing we check after a crash is our gear.)

After being bitten, I head home and use the rest of my babysitter time to hit the urgent care for a tetanus shot. The doctor, who tells me she was bitten by a dog in her neighborhood while running, checks the wound and tells me it's a crush injury and will be sore. She encourages me to report the incident.

I feel silly calling the Deschutes County Sheriff's non-emergency line to report a dog bite, and say so to the deputy who takes my report. "Oh no," he says. "You have to report these things. What if it was a child?" This hits home.

In dog-centric Bend, I expect my experience to be minimized as random, and worse, somehow my fault for not managing someone else's dog during my ride. However, the most dogged, canine-adoring members of my posse respond with more than sympathy. They are concerned that experiences like mine give Dog Love a bad name, and could potentially threaten off-leash access for responsible dog owners.

"We don't want to put restrictions on people, but we do want everybody to have a good experience in the forest," says Jean Nelson-Dean, the Public Affairs Officer for the Deschutes National Forest. "It's more than just our management. It's people taking personal responsibility and respecting the needs of others."

Two of my friends share heartbreaking, personal stories of having to put aggressive dogs down. They felt it wasn't worth the risk of having a hostile dog, one that was increasingly showing signs of being a four-legged time bomb, and made an incredibly difficult decision.

"People have to be accountable for their pets," says Lieutenant Shane Nelson of the Deschutes County Sheriff. "Your dog has to be under your control - and that can be by voice command - but only if the dog listens to you."

Nelson leashes the dog he's owned for ten years when he's around other people because he says he's just not 100 percent sure how the dog will react. Nelson-Dean, who is also a dog owner, agrees. "You can't totally predict what a dog is going to do," she says.

So what should you do if you're bitten?

"The first thing is to make the situation safe," says Nelson. "You need to be prepared to defend yourself against the animal, and have the owner get control of the animal." Depending on the severity of the bite, you may need to get immediate medical attention. Otherwise, get the owner's name and contact information and report the incident to the authority with jurisdiction.

Unlike an attack in your neighborhood, where it's reasonably easy to identify the owner of the dog, one in the woods puts the victim at an unfair disadvantage. Although you can request the owner's information, they do not have to give it. In this case, Nelson suggests gathering as many details as possible, including a license plate, and calling authorities immediately.

"We really want those dog bite reports," says Nelson.

Ultimately, I'm able to connect with the dog owner - Bend is small town - and she is sincerely contrite and offers to pay for my tetanus shot. More importantly, she assures me she'll keep the dog that bit me on a leash from now on.

"County code dictates that the owner of the animal has to have complete control of that animal at all times," explains Nelson. "People will tell you their animal is friendly, or doesn't bite. But if you don't feel comfortable around the animal, ask them to get control of it."

So how will this experience change the way I respond to off-leash dogs on the trail? Please don't be upset if I yell authoritatively at your dog, to establish myself as the "alpha," as I was advised to do by some of my dog-loving friends. I might not say, "It's OK," when your dog forces me to yield the trail. And I might ask you to restrain your dog, especially if my minis are with me.

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