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!
Anna Silverfish says
Once I barked back at three mid-sized dogs chasing me. Coming from a few feet above their heads, the sound seemed to confuse them and they backed off.
Colin D. says
I’m so glad that worked for you – definitely worth a good, loud try. Thanks, Anna!
Mary Himlin says
Glad it worked for you, bless you. This is a bit apples and oranges, but some dogs do NOT need to feel provoked. Tell me about the loose one who attacked me and my three small dogs, killing one. Never feel, on the bike, or on foot, that you may have one up manship with any dog. This is a fallacy.
Colin D. says
Thanks for commenting, Mary. I’m very sorry to hear of the loss of your pup in those circumstances. You make a very good point.
Because every encounter is unpredictable we have to be prepared to evaluate in the moment – a very difficult thing to do. We need to be able to defend ourselves in the worst case scenario – loose, aggressive dogs – and be ready with ways to discourage less determined dogs before things turn nasty. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of irresponsible dog owners, so we must prepare ourselves and hope we don’t encounter animals as vicious as the one that attacked you. I know the after effects can be with you for a long time, so I hope you are healing. Thank you, Mary.
I carry pepper spray with me, but I also stash a couple large dog biscuits in my jersey pocket or bike bag in case of a dog encounter. I’ve had to toss a biscuit a couple times, which worked to distract the dog so I could get down the road, but luckily I’ve never had to use the pepper spray.
Why does everyone recommend telling a dog to “Go Home”? Dogs aren’t taught what that means. They do, however, understand “NO!”
I have also had good luck with an athletic whistle blown loudly and sharply.
Dogs are a big problem here in rural Kentucky. There are leash laws but people on large rural plots just let them run free.
Pepper spray has seemed the best deterrent for me, or out-run if I’m ahead of them, but I can accelerate pretty fast when a dog is on the chase!!! Ha. We call it my ‘chicken little’ gear!
Stay safe out there
Lindsay Haisley says
I’ve had good luck with pepper spray, and had to use it a few times. A few years ago I was assaulted by a pack of male dogs in pursuit of a bitch in heat. The whole pack came at me on my bike and I stood my ground and must have used up half a can of pepper spray before they all gave up and went away. Pepper spray may have saved my life! I call it “dog manners in a can”.
Last week I had to use pepper spray on a dog which came out of a driveway in a residential area, chased me and grabbed hold of my pants leg – and had I been wearing shorts it would have been a bite. The dog got pepper sprayed and backed off, but the spray mechanism on the can was defective and I got some of the capsaicin solution on my hand. There was a bit of it in the air and I rubbed my eyes, and was pretty quickly blinded. I was close to home, and had no water with me, so I had to call my wife who brought me water and wet cloths to wipe my eyes, and I could see again.
The moral of this story is, if you carry pepper spray for use on dogs, ALWAYS carry water and a rag or washcloth in case any of the capsaicin liquid gets in your eyes!
I’m looking into getting an ultrasonic dog repeller, but don’t know how well they’d work.