A canine friend on the trail from Lyon to Le Puy

A canine friend on the trail from Lyon to Le Puy. France, 2009.

Furry friend or foe?

Dogs on the trail

One topic that comes sniffing around every once in a while concerns dogs, and meeting them on the trail.

You can read about encounters with packs of snarling dogs, and I’m sure they do occur from time to time. So far, after thousands of miles walking solo in France and Spain, it has never happened to me and I’ve never met anyone with such a story. I’m definitely not minimizing the concern – dog attacks can happen anywhere, and let’s face it, gnashing teeth are scary.

I’m a “dog person”, so I have a positive bias, but I’ve known animals that were fearsome and even vicious. So I’m happy to offer this good news: I’ve never been nipped yet. These are some memories of dogs in France and Spain.

Paris is famous for people pampering their dogs, who accompany them to restaurants and stores. I’ve almost never seen this; it just doesn’t live up to the myth. Seeing them out for a walk is a regular sight. They’re generally well-behaved and better leash-trained than most dogs here in the States – gently trotting alongside their humans.

Outside the cities, dogs have a more utilitarian “purpose”, frequently the defense of home and farm. There seem to be a lot of “outside” dogs, which I totally don’t get – ours sleep on the couch! In villages, they may bark from behind fences and aren’t much concern. In the country, trails sometimes run right through farmyards between the house and barns. Where I’ve seen dogs (usually barking furiously), they’ve always been (sadly, I think) chained up. The occasional free dog has been out with his farmer.

Many breeds are banned in France and elsewhere in Europe, and even pedigreed chien dangereux have strict registration and handling requirements. These include “category 1 attack dogs” (chiens d’attaque) and “category 2 guard dogs” (chiens de guarde et défense) – Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers (Pitbull), Bull Mastiffs (Boerbull), Rottweilers, and Tosa-Inus. By and large, I think their caretakers are responsible and take appropriate precautions.

I’ve only been worried during one canine confrontation. It happened a week or so into my walk from Reims to Vézelay on the way to Compostela. My mind was off in road-induced reverie when two big dogs came charging out of a barn onto the road. My pulse quickened even though their tails were wagging, which is supposedly a “non-threatening” sign. I took a calm, defensive position and loudly barked back, “NON!” They merely came up for a good sniff, then turned away and dashed back home. It’s not that I scared them off, they just weren’t dangerous animals. Afterwards, as the walk progressed, I started missing dogs so much that I began searching for a pack of my own…

The dog at the top of this article startled me one afternoon on the way from Lyon to Le Puy. I was crossing a meadow on a narrow track through tall grass, carrying both hiking poles in one hand. I suddenly felt a moist bump on my free hand and discovered this friendly dog had padded up from behind. From then on, he assumed the role of guide. When I stopped for lunch, he stopped and lay down nearby, and afterwards lead me for several miles, until we reached the next village.

Every so often I’ve met pilgrims walking with their dogs. Hotels and guesthouses will rarely accept dogs, nor will most hostels, but I’ve seen them spend the night outside. Most canine pilgrims seem to camp a lot…

Among other encounters was this one in the wide, hot afternoon of the Camino. Two Spanish dogs were demonstrating la siesta. It was this very village where “the dog days of summer” was first mentioned. I think. In any case, they never moved as I crept by…

Finally, these two wolves came rushing up to greet me at the entrance to El Acebo. It’s the first village you pass through after the Cruz de Ferro, as the Camino winds down into the Bierzo. I felt safe enough to snap their picture. Isn’t that little fella cute?

So, remain observant but not fearful. It’s one occasional risk on a road of many rewards. Fear of dogs shouldn’t hold anyone back from walking the Camino. Be safe, enjoy the trail, and as the signs say, “Beware of the Dog”…

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