Sidewalks Are for Decent Citizens and Dogs, Not Runners

Dogs can be taught tricks. Dogs can be sweet. But when you run up behind them without warning on the sidewalk, they can revert.
Dogs can be taught tricks. Dogs can be sweet. But when you run up behind them without warning on the sidewalk, they can revert. Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons
I promise never to bring this up again. I may have said that before. I can’t remember. But this is definitely the last time.

What is the etiquette for running up silently behind unfamiliar dogs on leashes and then passing them on the same sidewalk? Actually, forget etiquette. What is the best way to avoid having your jugular vein severed by a dog because you burst by her totally oblivious with earbuds in your ears like you were the only creature on the planet?

I don’t want my dogs to sever anyone’s jugular vein ever, and, if they do, I will hold myself personally and totally responsible. I will feel awful. But I won’t be the one with the severed jugular vein, will I?

Obviously my dogs don’t go around trying to sever jugular veins right and left, or I would commit them to a quick and merciful end. Dogs have to do better than that. So do owners of dogs. Fully agree.

But I’m not talking about just anybody out there walking around. I am talking about the runner, usually youthful and therefore breathing silently, who flies up behind us on little cat feet, then brushes by the dogs without a peep of warning.

So, yes, the dogs think we’re under attack. They think they’re supposed to sever the guy’s jugular vein. Obviously I don’t let them do that, if I can help it. They are small dogs, but they are fantastic leapers when the need arises.

I always keep them on leashes, and I usually keep a pretty good grip, unless I am texting. But one dreads to think. What an awful way for a healthy young person to go. All that struggle to get through school and stay physically fit, devoting the evenings to healthy exercise, only to be sent down the tubes by a couple of East Dallas mutts. It’s not going to make a good eulogy.

I will feel awful. But I won’t be the one with the severed jugular vein, will I?

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So this would be my thinking. Yes, it is the duty of the dog owner to keep his surly mutts under control at all times. You would think he would train them better. But since you don’t know the dog owner and you know nothing at all about the mutts, why push your luck?

I can think of only one answer, Mr. Little Cat’s Feet, and I think you know who you are. You don’t know dogs. You couldn’t have the least bit of intimate experience with real live dogs, or you would never run up silently behind them and then almost brush against them.

Those of us who have dogs, we love our dogs, and they love us. We assign all kinds of ridiculous anthropomorphic qualities to them. We think our dogs are moping and worried that they may have done something wrong because they didn’t get a treat when we came home. We think they’re smiling at us. We think they’re concerned about our emotional health. We think they’re curious about tomorrow.

But know this. Dogs are stupid. I don’t care how many amazing tricks a dog has been taught. If somebody looks at a dog the wrong way, the dog will bite him in the face. They revert to character.

Here’s something to think about. Please. Dogs are very opportunistic. Let’s say the dog’s first impulse is to rip out your jugular. But she’s just a little dog, and you are a very tall and lithe fellow. What that dog probably would do in that circumstance is go for what we might call low hanging fruit, if you catch my drift.

Yes. Ponder that one for a moment. And I would feel absolutely awful about it. You could even sue me. I’m sure you would win. You would have every right. If the injury were serious and especially if it were permanent, you could probably sue me for everything I’m worth.

You’re going to be very disappointed when your lawyer shows you the final number on that, but not half so disappointed as when you ponder your loss. Or losses. This is not a deal that will pencil out well for you. Ahem.

So this is what I would do instead. I would step up onto a lawn or out onto the parkway or maybe even out into heavy traffic before running up unannounced on my dogs from behind. I would give my mutts a wide margin of error as I ran by. I might say something, like “good evening” as I approached to signal to the dogs that I am not an attacker. They really do appreciate good manners. And I might even, as I passed, keep one or both hands over any parts of my body that I’m particularly interested in keeping.

click to enlarge
This is how I do not want people to wind up after running up behind my dogs.
RudolfH / Wikimedia Commons

I do understand that you should not have to do any of this. It’s entirely on the dog owner to ensure that his dogs are not a danger to the soft-footed public. No question. I believe that you have every right to sneak up on strange dogs and expose your vulnerabilities to them risking tragic outcome if you so choose. What I question is the choice.

I find that most dog-walkers are polite. I have a neighbor who is so polite, when she and I approach each other with our dogs, we both cross the street two or three times before we converge. That’s just who we are.

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My dogs, by the way, are pretty good. They do just fine most of the time. I know them. If I see certain dogs approaching on leashes and I sense that we could have some kind of a dog situation ahead, I just cross the street.

I find that most dog walkers are polite. I have a neighbor who is so polite, when she and I approach each other with our dogs, we both cross the street two or three times before we converge. That’s just who we are.

My dogs wag their tails a lot. If adults ask me if they can pet my dogs, I say, “The smaller one.” If children ask, I say, “No.” That’s not on the dog. I just think children already have been allowed to do so many things by their parents that I should not have to chip in.

As a last point, I would like to talk to you about the law of sidewalk right of way. When I watch you loping up and down the sidewalk on your soft feet with your earbuds in your ears, I notice that you never say hello to anyone, never acknowledge other human beings, never even give the impression you are aware that other people share the planet with you. I sometimes get the feeling you think that you own the sidewalk because you are running.

But that is exactly why you do not own the sidewalk and you do not have priority under the law of sidewalk right of way. The sidewalk is for walkers, human and canine. Under the law of sidewalk right of way, people who walk are primary and privileged over all others. People who run must yield to them at all times and under all circumstances. And when the law says yield, it means yield — way out there, several yards distant.

You ask: To what so-called law of sidewalk right of way do I refer? You want me to show you the law of sidewalk right of way? Meet my dogs.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze