Contributed by Anne-Christine Strugnell
How to prevent dog attacks on or off the bike
A cautionary tale, with tips to help cyclists avoid attacks from dogs they approach
Lisa Wilkes, Terry customer support lead, was on her bicycle, wearing a helmet, sunglasses, and cycling gear when she stopped in to see some friends who were out in the driveway of their home. When Lisa rode down the driveway to her friends’ garage, she saw their dog, a 10 year old boxer she had met once before. The dog approached Lisa, and thinking that he’d recognize her, she bent down to greet him.
That’s when he lunged at her, biting her face. Fortunately, Lisa recovered well. When I met up with her almost a year later, I couldn’t see any traces of the attack until she pointed them out to me. But we were puzzled: why had the dog bitten without any warning? I reached out to Meredith Lunn, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and AKC CGC evaluator, to see if she could provide some insights and advice that might protect other cyclists in a similar situation.
After interviewing everyone involved, Meredith identified three possible triggers for this dog attack:
- The helmet covering Lisa’s head, sunglasses concealing her eyes, even the bike itself could have made her look unfamiliar. This could have scared the dog and triggered him to bite when she bent over him.
- She was bending over the dog, which for some dogs is confrontational and can make them feel trapped. Most dogs prefer to escape situations that make them feel uncomfortable. But if the dog felt unable to escape, that might explain why it attacked Lisa instead of avoiding her.
- Dogs don’t generalize well. She’d met him before, but inside the house, so he might not have recognized her outside.
Dogs almost always give warning signals when they feel uncomfortable. They’ll avoid you, or growl, snarl, or air snap to ask people to back off, and only progress to biting when people continue to invade their space. Meredith urges people to be sensitive to these signals, and suggests several tips to avoid dog bites:
- Don’t stare at the dog. It can be a confrontational gesture.
- Let the dog approach you. Don’t go up to the dog, get into his space, or stick your hand in his face.
- Don’t bend over the dog, grab his head, or try to hug him.
- Stand with your side facing the dog instead of facing the dog head on. Keeping your arms at your sides, turn the palm of your hand out that’s nearest to the dog. Let him sniff and lick your hand.
- If the dog starts to back away, growl, or bark, don’t pursue him.
The good news is that for the most part, dogs don’t make unprovoked attacks. They’ll bite only when they feel uncomfortable and can’t get away from the threat they perceive. As a cyclist who may find herself crossing an unfamiliar dog’s territory, take a moment to think about how the dog might see you and adjust your behavior accordingly. Don’t assume either that every dog loves you, or that every dog is a threat. Instead, stay safe by giving them space and time to adjust to you and decide for themselves that you’re not a threat.
Tips to help cyclists prevent dog attacks while riding
Ever been chased by a dog when you cycle past its home?
Sooner or later every cyclist will encounter a dog “defending” its turf, playfully or aggressively. Either way it is an unpredictable and scary situation, and it’s best to be prepared ahead of time with some defensive strategies to prevent a dog attack, or reduce the risk of being bitten.
Having said that dogs don’t make unprovoked attacks, they are predatory animals, and can react to things going by them quickly – like bikes. Whether their instinct is to herd it or attack, they want to chase the fast-moving object. Cyclists and dog behavior experts recommend the following:
- Outrun it. This great idea only works if you can actually outrun it. The average dog can sprint about 19 MPH, though some are faster, and if you’re going up a hill, you’re going to lose that one.
- Master it. You can startle a less-aggressive dog in its tracks by simply yelling in your deepest “master” voice, “Go home!” “bad dog!” or something similar. You might even point at something over to the side to try to redirect their attention.
- Scare it. Squirting it with a water bottle has a mixed record of success. Pepper spray is good if you can accurately get the dog in the face, which is tough when you’re going fast. A “dog horn,” which is an air horn for dogs, delivers a very loud burst of sound that shocks most dogs. You can mount it on your bike for easy access.
- Stop. If you can’t deter the dog and confrontation is imminent, stop, put the bike between you and the dog, stand big and tall and scary, and avoid eye contact. When you’re not fleeing, you don’t look so much like prey. This might be a good moment to deploy the pepper spray or air horn, or you might not even need that extra deterrent. The dog might just trot back home. If not, and it continues to be aggressive, keep the bike between you and the dog so that if it bites something, it’s the bike.
Good luck out there!