QUESTION: How do cyclists deal with dogs? I live in a rural area where some people let their dogs run loose. Some dogs have charged me when I’ve ridden past their houses. I already avoid certain routes because of aggressive dogs. Got any advice?
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: That’s a good question. You’re not the only rider who avoids routes with troublesome dogs.
There’s no single solution that works in every situation, in part because of the difference in temperament from one dog to the next, and in part because getting bitten is not the only risk dogs can present to cyclists.
Regarding getting bitten, a little perspective may be useful. I’ve pedaled about 100,000 lifetime miles (can’t be exact since I didn’t keep records in my earlier years) and have ridden coast-to-coast and in more than half of the U.S. states as well on one Caribbean island. Along the way, I have managed to excite plenty of canines who have chased or challenged me while I rode by their domain, but I’ve actually been bitten by a dog only once, and it was just nip. In contrast, I’ve been bitten twice while not on the bike — once by a neighbor’s dog and once by an unrestrained dog on a city street.
I have a friend who also has over 100,000 lifetime miles and another who has double that, and neither has ever been bitten while on the bike. They attribute that mostly to luck and a combination of some of the defense measures I mention below.
Of course, my experience and that of my friends is no guarantee that your luck will be similar, and it only takes one encounter with a dog who doesn’t give up to sour or even end your riding experience.
The other threat to cyclists from unrestrained dogs is that they can cause you to have an accident. An acquaintance once found himself with a litter of puppies swarming around his bike, and while trying to avoid hitting them, he lost control of the bike, and fell, breaking his arm. Another rider I know of, being charged by an aggressive canine, became so rattled that she crashed and was severely injured before the animal even got to her.
While I’ve only been bitten once while on the bike, I’ve had one encounter that could have ended much worse. I was riding up a long hill, so I wasn’t moving fast. Near the top was a house, and right before it was a hedge perpendicular to the road. As I passed it, a huge, brown dog hurtled out from behind the hedge — apparently the sneak had been lying in wait for me. Before I had time to even think of any kind of defense, the brute plowed into me broadside, sending me crashing onto the road. He then ran off.
At that point, a woman, hearing the commotion, came out of the house and called the dog, saying “Here, Goliath. Here, Goliath.” She made a big fuss over whether the dog was hurt. (He wasn’t.) Only belatedly did she ask if I was okay. I was banged up a bit, but not seriously hurt. But the impact had damaged the cage on my front derailleur.
There are also a few dog owners who will stand in their yard and watch their dog hound you, without even calling it back. It makes you wonder whether it’s the dog or the owner who ought to be confined.
As I said, there is no single solution, but here are some defenses that sometimes work:
The first is shouting. What you shout is not important, so long as you shout fiercely and loud. I usually yell “Go home!” Some dogs will be frightened or confused by your shouts and give up the chase. The shout may also alert the animal’s owner to call the dog back.
Another tactic is speed, where you outrun the dog. In general, this works only if the dog is some distance away when starting its run at you. If you are headed uphill at the time, you may not be able to generate enough speed to pull this escape off. Kicking at the dog while you are still on the bike is very risky, and if the mutt grabs your foot, you’ll almost certainly crash.
If it you can’t outrun the animal you’re sometimes better to stop, dismount and keep the bike between you and the dog while you walk past the ground he is defending — usually the property Fido considers “his.” Once off the bike, you can continue to yell. In one such circumstance, my “Go home!” command, combined with my outstretched arm pointing toward his home, caused the dog to literally hang his head and go home. More often, the dog may stand his ground and keep barking, but when you are no longer moving rapidly, all the fun is taken out of the chase, and the continued barking has a “and see that you don’t come back again” ring to it.
Another common defense is pepper spray (one brand is called Halt, which is used by mail carriers) that you fire toward the dog’s face. It stings their eyes and nose and will often cause a charging dog to stop. It does no lasting harm to the dog. The downsides are 1), it’s hard to aim and still steer your bike and thus you risk crashing, 2) the direction of the wind can cause the pepper stream to deviate from where you’ve aimed it — in a strong wind, it may even blow back toward you — and 3) some dogs are not deterred by the spray.
One of the most generally effective weapons is a loud air horn that makes a frightful sound. I first realized this years ago on a ride when a Doberman charged me from a house I was passing. I was in the far lane, but as he entered the near lane, an oncoming semi blasted his horn. The dog did a rapid about face. I tried to duplicate this with a small hand-held horn attached to a gas canister, which I carried on the bike for several months, but the first time I really needed it, all the gas had leaked out. Now, however, you can get one for your bike where the tank can be recharged with a bike pump. The controls mount on your handlebars where you can activate the horn without letting go of bars. See one model here. And here’s a video of the horn in action, shot from a bike-mounted camera.
Another version of the frightful noise defense is to throw specially prepared “adult snap pops” onto the road. They are party fireworks that explode on impact. This article, from a Road Bike Rider contributor, tells how to make them suitable for dog defense while cycling.
If all else fails, swing your bike as a weapon.
If you’re bothered by a particular dog, consider reporting it to the local dog warden. Without evidence, and if you haven’t been injured, some officials may be reluctant to act, but the same rider who videoed the dogs responding to the air horn took a video of another charging dog to the appropriate warden. Seeing the video, the warden looked up the address from which the dog had come and found no dog license on record. He then visited the property, fined the dog owner for allowing the dog to roam unrestrained and also made him purchase a dog license. It all cost the owner about $300. The cyclist has ridden by that property several times since, and the dog was nowhere to be seen.
Dog laws vary from state to state, but there are often legal remedies if you have been bitten by a dog or crashed because of a dog. Here, for example, is some information from a lawyer in Ohio who specializes in such cases.
Dogs and their threat to cyclists remind us that no journey is totally without risk, but when the risk is generally manageable, we are poorer when we let the possibility of trouble deter us from riding.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.