Dealing with aggressive dogs on a bicycle tour can be a stressful and somewhat unnerving experience at first. The sight and sound of an aggressive dog running up to your bike, barking and snarling makes you realise just how exposed you are on a bike tour. Even if you are cycling with another person, the initial encounters may still trigger a “fight or flight” response. Neither of these reactions is the best way to deal with aggressive dogs on a cycle tour though. A calmer, more thought out approach is always better, and hopefully this article will help you to develop your own strategy in dealing with them.
Whilst I don't claim to be a canine expert, I have had more than a few encounters with dogs when cycling. I haven't been bitten (yet!!), but one did make me suffer a low speed crash. I actually felt more embarrassed by it than hurt, as I doubt I was going even 1 MPH at the time! When I came off, the dog stopped barking and left the scene with a kind of satisfied swagger just to rub it in. I wasn't smiling! On a serious note though, there was a lesson to be learned which I will describe later.
Dealing With Aggressive Dogs on a Bicycle Tour
First of all, lets put this into some sort of context for anyone who comes from a country where the majority of dogs are kept as pets, and are normally on leashes. Newsflash – The rest of the world doesn't think like you do! Dogs are kept only if they serve a purpose. This purpose might be herding livestock, hunting vermin or game, or guarding property. The one thing they all have in common, is that they are working within a territory which they consider to be their own. Within this territory, there will be a pecking order with an Alpha at the very top.
If dogs are not kept, then they are scavengers or wild. They will still have a territory which they consider their own, but are less likely to actively protect it against a cyclist. As food is probably harder to come by, they would instead save their energy for the battles that really count, such as protecting their territory against other dogs. Scavengers or wild dogs will sometimes work in packs. Cyclists are less likely to encounter packs, but it does happen from time to time. Facing off against a pack of wild dogs is not something that you want to do for fun.
What does this mean for the cyclist then?
Although you might be happily cycling along believing that the road belongs to you, in reality, you will be cycling through many different dog's territories. In countries where dogs are leashed or trained as pets, you might not ever notice this (unless you are a postman of course). In other countries though, the dogs will come out and actively protect that territory from the unknown. And you, my friend, are the unknown! The only way a dog can protect it's territory is by proving it is the Alpha. It does this by barking, snarling, and if it is brave or close enough, biting. It's nothing personal.
Dealing with Aggressive Dogs on a Bicycle Tour – Dangers
The dangers of dealing with aggressive dogs on a bicycle tour should not be underestimated. An encounter that ends badly could end up in injury or worse. Here are the main dangers –
Accidents – This is where I return to my earlier story of a dog making me crash the bike. I was cycling around a tight switchback bend on a gravel uphill section. As mentioned, the speed was negligible and my pride hurt more than the fall. Imagine this though at a higher speed, and it could have ended up in cuts, bruises or even broken bones. If a truck had been tailgating me, I might have ended up getting run over as well. Why did I fall off? The dog caught me by surprise, and ran right up barking. My first reaction was to veer out of the way, and due to the nature of the terrain, I ended up coming off the bike. Truth be told, I had my headphones in at the time, listening to some tunes to help get me through the day, and hadn't heard the dog approaching. Lesson learned – Don't wear headphones in dog country!
Most of the potential accidents that aggressive dogs might cause when on a bicycle tour, are when you feel forced to veer further into the road. This occurs when a dog starts running at you from land or property on the same side of the road that you are cycling. It's a natural reaction to want to pull over into the middle of the road to create more space between you and the dog. Try to avoid this whenever possible though. The traffic behind you may be unaware of what you are doing, and you might get hit from behind.
The reverse also occasionally occurs, where a dog will run at you from the opposite side of the road to which you are cycling on. Its happened to me a few times, and in one case, a dog ran across oncoming traffic to start barking at me. The reaction here, is to veer out onto the shoulder if there is one, the embankment, or off the road completely. Try to avoid this as well, as you don't want to ‘ditch' your bike, especially if you face a tumble down a mountainside in the back of beyond!
A rarer way in which aggressive dogs might cause you to have an accident when cycling, is if it should somehow get under your wheels. If this happens, its pretty unlikely that you are going to be able to stay on the bike. Again, you are faced with injury from the fall, and potential injury from traffic coming from behind you.
Bites – This is what most cyclists are afraid of when confronted by dogs on the road. The last thing you want is a mangy mutt sinking his teeth into you. Forget the initial blood loss – With the danger of infection or disease you would need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Rabies would be a huge concern, especially in less developed parts of the world. Hopefully, the following strategies will help you to avoid getting bitten.
Dealing with Aggressive Dogs on a Bicycle Tour – Strategies
At this point, you know why some dogs react the way they do, and the dangers that they can present. All it leaves now, is to develop a strategy for dealing with aggressive dogs on a bicycle tour. There are a few ways in which the dangers that aggressive dogs present can be avoided, and it comes down to minimising momentum and proximity.
Unclip – If you are wearing cleats or using cages, unclip or get your feet out as soon as you see or hear a dog running towards you. There's nothing worse than coming off a bike when you are still clipped in. Been there, and done that! It also frees your feet and legs should you need to pull them out of the way of a snapping dogs mouth, or kick out at a dog that has got too close.
Get off the Bike – Where practically possible, it is best to get off the bike. This might be counter-intuitive at first, as pure survival instinct will be telling you to put as much distance between the dog and yourself. You might be able to out-cycle the chasing dog sometimes, but normally, it just encourages the dog to give chase for longer than it would do otherwise. Getting off the bike stops your momentum, which neutralises the risk of falling off the bike, and minimises the chances of veering off into the road and getting hit by traffic. By walking with the bike between you and the dog, you also help solve the proximity problem by keeping the dog at bay. At this point, you would need to play it by ear. Sometimes, the dog will lose interest and trot away. At other times, it may continue in an aggressive manner barking and snapping. Each situation is different, and experience will tell you how to judge it.
Slow Down – If it's not possible to get off the bike and push, then at least slow down. This will reduce the chances of serious injury should you fall off, and may enable you to use some of the following ideas.
Sticks – In some countries, I have chosen to cycle with a stick. Now, please don't get all animal rights on me and tell me that its wrong to hit a dog. I know that, and would never hit a dog out of malice. The stick is used defensively, not aggressively. If I am walking with my bike, or cycling at slow speeds and feel the need to use the stick by making defensive swings, then I will do. If by any chance I do make contact with a chasing dog, then in my opinion, it was just too damn close. Whenever the choice is there between using a stick to defend myself and getting bitten, then the stick wins every time.
Stones – In some countries, dogs are so accustomed to the very motion of someone reaching down to pick up a rock to throw, that they will stop chasing and immediately run away. They can also make a good distraction in order to pedal yourself out of the danger zone.
Your Voice – Never underestimate the power of your voice when in a conflict situation, and this applies equally to humans as well as aggressive dogs. Shouting at an aggressor may put them off or make them think twice. Combine that with reaching for a stone or swinging with a stick, and most dogs will back away.
Water – Some people claim that squirting a bottle of water in the face of a chasing dog will make them stop in their tracks. I've never tried this myself, because normally, water is quite a precious resource and I don't want to leave myself short. I've also heard of some people carrying small water pistols. Again, never tied this, but it at least sounds fun even if it doesn't prove to be effective!
Pepper Spray – I come from a country where we don't have pepper spray for general sale, so can't really comment. The major drawback I imagine, would be that you might end up spraying your own face, and then cause more problems than you were trying to solve.
There is no one method that will guarantee success when confronted with an aggressive dog, but using a combination of the above should see you good in most circumstances. Agree or disagree with any of it? Have any other suggestions to make? I'd love to hear your thoughts on dealing with aggressive dogs on a bicycle tour. Please leave a comment in the comments section below.