Little Girl, Big Dog—Trouble on the Trail? by Tamia Nelson

In the half century I’ve been venturing off the beaten path, I’ve never once been attacked by a wild animal larger than a mosquito. But I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had run-ins with dogs. Some of them were running free, without an owner in sight. Most, however, were under the nominal control of their masters, and—more often than not—those “masters” were women. I’m not sure where the idea that a woman isn’t safe in the backcountry without a dog at her heels came from, but it’s certainly taken root. Perhaps it originated with the late Anne (“Woodswoman”) LaBastille, whose rustic romances chronicling the plight of a lone woman in the Wild East seem to have found a place in the hearts of many female readers. Anyway, Anne always had a hyperprotective German shepherd in tow, and I know of at least one lifelong fan who consciously set out to emulate her. I’m sure she’s not alone.

In short, it’s a case of little girl, big dog… Whatever the genesis of this current fashion, it can pose a real problem for the woman (or man) who prefers to go afield without a canine bodyguard. Few of the women I meet on the trail with large, aggressive dogs have either the inclination or the ability to keep their companion-protectors in check. Which creates a dilemma for the dogless walker. Does she retreat when confronted by a growling, snapping, menace? Or does she hold her ground? It all depends on your temperament, I suppose. But I’m not of a mind to retreat. In fact, given the frequency with which I encounter aggressive dogs on the trail these days, a policy of retreat would be tantamount to staying home. So I go prepared, instead. A sturdy cow cane keeps most of the snarling beasts at a safe distance—a hiking staff or trekking pole would work, too, of course—while a can of Halt II dog repellent serves as backup.

And so far, these have done the trick. In fact, I’ve noticed that most dog-owners develop a belated interest in bringing their dogs to heel just as soon as they catch sight of my cow cane, giving me time to step off the trail and allow dog and master to pass. Still, I’ve learned a few tricks for those times when deterrence and avoidance fail. First, I never turn my back on a truculent dog. I always keep it in view. (NB This runs counter to the advice of many experts, who discourage making eye contact with an aggressive dog. But that’s not exactly practical advice when the animal in question is loping toward you, snarling and snapping its jaws, is it?) I then swing my cane up, gripping it in both hands and holding it across my body, simultaneously delivering a clear, unambiguous “Stay!” in what Farwell is pleased to call my “command voice.” More often than not, this brings the dog up short, giving the owner time to get it under control.

If, however, the animal continues to approach and manifests clear aggressive intent, and if the owner is unable or unwilling to check its advance, I bring the Halt II into play. It has a higher capsaicin concentration than the original Halt!, and at distances of less than 10 feet it stops even the largest and most aggressive animals in their tracks. While no “dog repellent” comes with any guarantee, and Halt II is no exception to this rule, I’m happy to report that it’s never let me down. Better yet, Halt! and Halt II deliver a stream of repellent, rather than a fog, making deployment a little less chancy on windy days. And what do you do if Halt! fails to live up to its name? An acquaintance—a retired conservation officer—recommends a .357 Magnum handgun. But while I’m no stranger to firearms and their uses, I don’t see myself in the role of Dirty Harriet. Then again, if more little girls succumb to the allure of big, bad dogs, I may yet change my mind. In the meantime, I’ll put my trust in Halt II and my cow cane.

One further line of defense: a camera or digital camcorder (or a cell phone-cum-camera). I usually have one or the other with me on any backcountry jaunt, and I’ve found them invaluable for recording dog encounters that had their origin in an owner’s malice rather than simple incompetence. I wish it were otherwise, but a growing proportion of the dog-owners that I meet seem to be acting out some grudge against the world at large, and their dogs appear to be their weapons of choice. In such instances, a camera has a remarkably chilling effect.

It’s a pity, really. A walk in woods shouldn’t demand more than simple alertness. It certainly shouldn’t require that you gird yourself for battle. But so long as fearful or vindictive individuals find their dogs useful tools to assuage their fears and act out their fantasies of revenge on strangers, that’s the way it is. And it’s an even greater pity that the overwhelming majority of the problem dog-owners I’ve encountered in recent years have been women. It’s not a great advertisement for my sex, I’m afraid.

Pit Bull Attack

Are our public trails and enclaves of wild land going to the dogs? It certainly seems this way at times. But that’s no reason to stay home, is it? Not if you take a few common-sense precautions, at any rate.

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.