“Yo,” I holler, figuring the young man will reel in the rope. Nervous about spooking the muscular black and brown animal with clipped ears and tail, I slowly pass.
But unknown to me, the Doberman crosses over to my right, follows behind and lunges. Blessed with the breed’s speed and agility, he hurls past spinning spokes, cranks, pedals and chomps down on my, ahem, flank.
If you've ever been bitten by an unneutered dog known for its strength, athleticism and fearlessness, you can attest that teeth easily puncture mountain biking shorts as well as skin. Jaws reputed to exert as much as 600 pounds of pressure leave an impressive bruise.
But as I travel through the world of dog bites, I discover something far more stunning: Orange County averages more than four bites a day.
That translates to more than 1,500 recorded dog bites last year.
Mind you, that number only covers reports from Mission Viejo Animal Services -- which handles five cities -- and OC Animal Control which covers 14 of our county’s 34 cities.
In an area declared by the state as a rabies zone, that's cause for concern.
The alarming number of bites also reveals that laws are commonly broken, and that many well-meaning owners are putting their dogs -- and people -- in danger.
6-FOOT LEASH LAW
During my 25 years exploring Orange County’s backcountry, I’ve had several dozen dog encounters.
But until a few weeks ago, I’ve never had skin punctured.
Usually, some crazy pooch barrels along untethered and yaps away. About a dozen times, the furkid -- and I use that term with endearment -- jumps up, paws me with excitement.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the owner claims, “he’s friendly.”
But unless the owner’s Dr. Doolittle or Mowgli, he has no idea what the dog is thinking (dogs think, right?) or what the animal will do.
In the wilderness -- especially when wildlife is near -- a dog’s behavior can change in a second.
What’s more, every one of those owners broke the law.
That’s right, there are laws throughout the county that cover domesticated animals, dogs in particular.
Fines start at $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense.
Here’s one law to remember: Leashes can be no longer than six feet.
Sure, you can buy those dangerous and dumb extender leashes. But more than six feet and you are breaking the law. You also may end up breaking somebody’s bones with a moving cord that can trip even the surest of foot.
One more law: You have to exercise what’s called “due control” over your dog.
OK, one last law, and it’s a doozy for many dog lovers: Unless you are at an official dog beach or have a guide dog -- and, please, not one you bought on Amazon -- you can’t “permit said dog to be under any circumstances within public school property, certain county parks, or any public beach.”
Here’s the score last Sunday for people with dogs on Canyon Trail, just southeast of Coto de Caza: two people with dogs on leashes; eight people with 11 dogs off leash and running amok.
With dogs tempted to run off for rabbits, coyotes lurking and 170-pound mountain bikers, do these people want their dogs killed?
Oh, yes, one more regulation: “You are required by law,” OC Animal Care states, “to report any bite or scratch from a domestic or wild animal to animal control.”
Especially if it breaks skin.
INFECTIONS CAN BE DEVASTATING
After being bitten, I report the incident. Animal Services Officer David Lim comes to my home, checks the punctures and writes a report.
As suggested, I visit an urgent care clinic. Dogs carry germs, and the doctor cleans the wound and prescribes antibiotics.
Total cost: $80.
Treatment is worth it. Infections can be minor or major. Several years ago I visited with Adrian Thomas, a Laguna Hills resident who was bitten at a local dog park. I learned there is something common in animal saliva called "capnocytophaga canimorsus."
Without antibiotics, the rare infection stole most of Thomas’ fingers, feet, ankles and part of his nose.
After a bite -- if the dog’s whereabouts is known -- the animal is quarantined at home or at a shelter for 10 days to determine if rabies is present.
Reporting bites -- from victims as well as from owners -- is critical to keeping rabies under control, explains Gail DeYoung, Mission Viejo Animal Services manager.
De Young points out that owner information is confidential and restitution for a dog bite is a civil matter.
Sondra Berg worked the streets as an animal control officer for 18 years and is spokeswoman for OC Animal Care.
Has she ever been bitten?
Berg laughs. “I’ve been bitten numerous times. I can’t even tell you how many.”
The cost of dog bites also affects tax dollars. Berg reports the agency has two full-time officers who focus solely on animal bites.
A five-year review of OC Animal Care dog bites consistently shows the top four breeds that cause the most problems are, in ascending order: Labrador retriever, German shepherd, chihuahua, pit bull.
While Berg notes the behavior of an animal is the sole responsibility of the owner, she acknowledges certain breeds lean toward being more aggressive.
At the same time, she is careful to report that with training, socialization and proper care, most dogs are OK.
I circle back to the Doberman’s owner, Ramon Centeno, a 54-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita resident. The manufacturing engineer is thoughtful about the incident and makes clear the dog, Braxton, isn’t a vicious animal.
Centeno has three children and says, “I would never accept a dog that’s not friendly.”
He adds Braxton is now on a six-foot leash.
Orange County Register, Reported by: DAVID WHITING / STAFF COLUMNIST